Saturday, March 22, 2014

Interview With Erica Seguine, Jazz Composer

Erica Seguine is the subject of this second interview in a series featuring current members of the BMI Jazz Composer's Workshop.

Originally from Albany, NY, Erica Seguine is a composer, arranger, pianist, and teacher currently living and working in the NYC area. There she co-leads a big band, the Erica Seguine/Shannon Baker Jazz Orchestra, which has performed in many venues and festivals in NYC and North New Jersey. The orchestra performs original music that crosses many genres and conveys many different moods, utilizing a wide range of colors. She was the winner of the 2013 BMI Charlie Parker Competition for Jazz Composition/Manny Albam Commission, the 2013 ArtEZ Jazz Composition Contest, the 2009 Zurich Jazz Orchestra Composition Competition, and a recipient of a 2014 and 2011 ASCAP Young Jazz Composers Award. In 2012 She was selected as one of 8 arrangers internationally for the Metropole Orchestra Arrangers Workshop led by Vince Mendoza, where she had the opportunity to arrange Joe Zawinul’s/ Kurt Elling’s “Time to Say Goodbye” for Kurt Elling and the Metropole Orchestra. More information can be found at

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?

For the most part I write music daily. The time of day depends of course on my schedule that day. I’ve had productive hours at any point of day, but I’d have to say that some of my best hours have been at night (10pm or later). Maybe it’s the later hours that calm those inner voices a little bit, freeing my mind to write without critiquing too hard. Whether it’s in smaller chunks or larger chunks of time really depends on both my schedule and where I am in a piece (when I’m in flow I can write for 10 hours at a time, with a few short breaks, whereas other times even trying to write an hour can be laborious). I’d say normally I’m spending about 20-30 hours a week on average composing and arranging music.

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

This really depends! Sometimes it’s a harmonic idea that initiates everything. Other times it’s melodic. Sometimes it’s trying to write in a certain style (an Irish Reel, Chopin Nocturne, or a Tango). Sometimes it’s an image (whether it’s the water flowing gently from a ravine, or a tire swing endlessly spinning). Sometimes the instrumentation guidelines can influence me to write a piece.

What I do next is dependent on the initial idea. When I wrote “The Ravine,” I wrote down some words describing what I wanted to convey (such as water gently bubbling), and drew a form diagram before I wrote a single note or harmony. When I wrote “Reel No. 1”, I made sure that not only was the melody written down before anything, but I tweaked the interpretation over and over again, so that the melody really sounded like an authentic reel at a session before I got “adventurous” with it. When I wrote “...And the Tire Swing Keeps Spinning...” I both wrote many words/images describing that particular state and, since I was using a 12-tone row, wrote down all the possibilities (inversion, retrograde, different harmonies that were derived from pitch class sets) that could be found in my row just so I had some options that I could take or leave. I could go all day with other pieces, but that’s just to give some ideas.

My main goal is to really try to capture whatever that initial idea sparked. Because my initial ideas vary in how they came about, each one needs to be approached differently from the start.

Do you compose at the piano or away from it?

All your questions so far make me say “It depends” and I feel so wishy- washy! Working at the piano is great for coming up with harmonic ideas, voice leading, counterpoint, etc. And it’s great for improvising to potentially come up with new pieces. However, I like to work just as much away from it so I can try to get a better sense of “flow.” When I’m at the piano, I’m so honed in with minute details (which voicing will best resolve into this voicing) that it makes it difficult to see the overall picture.

Sometimes I just like to go out somewhere, whether it’s out by water, in a park, or in a coffee shop, (or even in places I don’t want to be but have to, like doctors offices, car service places, NJ Transit) and just bring a small manuscript notebook with me and jot down ideas, both in musical notation and otherwise. I like to draw form diagrams to see the potential shape of a piece. I like to write words down that can pinpoint what I’m trying to convey, and then write down musical descriptions (both in words and in music notation) to those words. Sometimes even pictures help.

I like to sing (very badly) lines away from the piano to help get a good melody, counterline, or voice-leading. Occasionally I’ve even pulled out my “old faithful” clarinet from the high school days to help create melodic lines.

I also like to conceive orchestration AS I’m coming up with material (as opposed to writing down a lead sheet or a basic sketch and then orchestrating it.) In fact, I’ve realized that so many of my pieces are tough to scale down to a more conventional instrumentation (especially if you try to take out even some of the woodwind doubles). It would be impossible to perform a lot of my music without the particular orchestration I use; it’s integral to the piece. Working at a piano can hinder how something will sound like played by many colors.

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

I use Sibelius (I have Finale too but never came to like it.) I prefer to write by hand as long as I can until I have to use the computer. Not to sound cliche, but I feel a better connection to what I’m writing when using pencil and paper, and it’s easier to draw correlations between my verbal/visual descriptions and my musical descriptions. It’s not the same to draw squiggly lines, write out 12-tone row possibilities, or write words like “Ice, darkness, barren, empty trees”, or “Runaway train, spirals, dizzyness” (I type this as I flip through my moleskin manuscript book) on a computer!

Oddly enough I don’t like using large paper (a la 11x17) even though I’ve tried to like it, though I know it works for so many others. When working on huge paper I feel overwhelmed that I have to fill up the paper and then feel compelled to force many ideas that I don’t believe in on paper, and then I feel bad about it. I prefer a small notebook (I can always turn the page for more ideas, which I do often) or 8x11 paper.

However, that deadline always looms one way or another. Sometimes I have enough time to write out whole works (orchestrated, articulations, dynamics, and all) by hand, and then simply input it into the computer. But for the most part, usually mid-way in the formation of a piece, I have to go to the computer because it’s faster. If I’m given a project with a tight deadline, I sometimes even have to completely forego pencil and paper.

I mainly use playback to A) Check any errors (I’m notorious for accidental mistakes) and B) Hear the overall flow/timing, though this is still hard to hear because everything is drastically different when performed by live instruments. I cringe every time I need to send out a MIDI file to our big band when we do a new piece so they can hear how everything fits in.

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

Well, when I started with Sibelius in 2005, the thing that annoyed me most was that you couldn’t copy and paste dynamics and other things directly onto triplets. Sibelius 7 enters and they STILL can’t do that?! I’ve heard Sibelius 7.5 fixes this. Is that correct or just a rumor?

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 studying scores very helpful. There have been times in life when I’ve score studied more than others, I admit. I don’t just study jazz scores, though I love looking and analyzing Maria Schneider, Gil Evans, or Jim McNeely scores, amongst others. I’m in love with studying Ravel’s “Daphnis and Chloe,” or Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8 or his Fourth Symphony (I know the 5th is the famous one but there is something so intriguing, dark, and depressing about his 4th!), or Gorecki’s 3rd Symphony, or playing through some Debussy Preludes, Chopin Nocturnes, Bach Fugues, or Satie piano works.

Just as important as score studying, I think, is listening and trying to find gems that way. More often than score studying, I will hear something I love in a recording, whether it’s an orchestrational idea, a voicing, or harmony, and I will try to figure out what it is.

I don’t try to force using these techniques I find when writing music. I store them in my mind, and if I’m coming across something, I may hear a snippet of something I’ve studied/heard and realize that it’s perfect for what I’m trying to convey.

How important is musical innovation to you?

I think musical innovation shouldn’t be forced. I’m definitely striving to be 100% original and authentic, but once you actually TRY to be innovative, you’re stifling your creativity, at least in my opinion. When I compose I aim to be 100% in the present, whether I actually succeed or not. While I greatly admire all the music of the past, respect the tradition, and study a lot of composers’ techniques and styles, I don’t try to emulate the past. I also don’t try to be the “future” either. It’s easiest and most authentic for me to try to keep both feet in the present at all times, as whatever musical problem I’m working on expects, even demands my mind to be purely focused on it. The initial image or concept I’m trying to convey in a composition is the most important to me, not “trying to be innovative” or “trying to sound like (insert-composer-here)”.

What concepts have you explored in your recent work?

Well, not long ago I wrote my first 12-tone piece! I will admit though it is not pure 12-tone or atonal by any means. I created a row, and did do all the math to find out all the possibilities that were open to me. But that’s what they were, possibilities that I partially used and partially deviated from.

I also more recently got into Irish music. I’ve tried (miserably) to learn and play some session tunes on dulcimer and tin whistle. So there have been a couple of originals/arrangements inspired by that.

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

OK, this is definitely one of those “it depends” answers. I’ve written original pieces that have taken only a couple of weeks for me to write. However, I’ve also written pieces that kept getting scrapped and revised over and over again, where I’ve needed to take breaks from it and come back. “The Ravine,” in all, took 5 months to reach it’s final form (there were multiple times where I’ve written entire sections and then slashed them later). I started “Snow”, and finished 3 other compositions before I was able to finish it (taking a total of 4 months to finish). I also recently revived a piece I wrote two years ago, and then scrapped. How long a piece takes has been largely dependent on how much material I’ve scrapped.

If I’m given a tight deadline, or an arrangement to do that’s less creative, I can write pretty quickly and get it out in a few days. Maybe it’s because I don’t have that personal connection that I feel when writing original music for our own band or for some other group that’s open to creativity. When I write original music, or even a very creative arrangement, I’m generally discarding at least 2/3rds of my material when you count everything (this is inclusive of tinkering away at the piano at the early stages, false starts to really finding the “essence” of a piece, as well as countless orchestrated measures shot off into the abyss.) There have been many times where I’ve completed around 60-70 measures, scored out, articulations, dynamics, etc., and I’ve discarded them all.

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

Some years have been really great composition years. In 2013 I finished 6 big band charts (originals or arrangements), wrote some arrangements for the Metropole Orchestra, and wrote a piece for elementary band, amongst other things. Others have been less productive. In the past I used to write a lot more for varied instrumentations (studio orchestra, vocal ensembles, string quartets, chamber groups, smaller jazz groups, film scores), but since I now co-lead a big band regularly, my writing has focused a lot more on that medium.

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

I do still play piano... let’s say I definitely consider myself more a composer. Between teaching, writing, and running a big band I don’t get a chance to do much playing.

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?

Tell me about the time and money and lack of audience! I have the big band because I have a real need to have an outlet for my work. If I don’t I go insane! I like the big band format because of all the colors you can use (especially when you get into doubles and can add voice), but it can also give you power you need in certain key moments. That being said, I really do love writing for strings and wished I had more opportunities to do so. However, ironically enough I’ve found it harder to get a string quartet together at one time than an entire big band!

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

My main money-making gig is teaching privately. I have my own studio of piano students and I also teach at another studio. In total I teach about 35 students a week. A few are theory or composition students, and I also try to work in theory and composition into the piano lessons. I also do some transcribing and light arranging work for some groups, and accompany for community theatre camps in the summer. I also sometimes get (paid) arranging work as well. Between those jobs I have just enough to get by and run a big band.

What are your career goals?

Well... I’d really like our big band to do a recording! But that’s a lot of money (hint to anyone out there...) I’d like to get more places for the band to play and really expand our audience. I enjoy teaching, but I hope that eventually I’m doing much more work composing or teaching composition. I would love to write more arrangements for other musicians (particularly ones I can be creative in) or write scores to films. I would also love to get more opportunities to write for different instrumentations other than big band.

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

I applied and got into the BMI Jazz Composers’ Workshop just after I finished graduate school. To me it felt like the perfect transition between school and trying to set off on my own as a composer. In a lot of senses it has been a great transition; some of the players in the BMI-NY Jazz Orchestra now play in our big band, as well as fellow BMI composer Scott Reeves. I’ve met contacts for other opportunities to have my work heard. I’ve made new friends. And Jim and Mike really got me thinking about certain aspects of my compositional process (mainly how to not keep a certain section or piece stagnant and too repetitive, but many other issues as well.)

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

I’ve received my BM in Jazz Studies and Contemporary Media - Writing Concentration (a lot of words to essentially mean “Jazz Composition”) at Eastman, where I primarily studied composition with Bill Dobbins for four years. Then I received my MM in Jazz Arranging at William Paterson University, where I studied with both Jim McNeely and Rich DeRosa. It’s interesting, with Bill the main focus was on the small details (voice- leading, not using a certain note in a voicing because it may give something away in the next voicing, rhythmically moving this note over an 8th note because it would sound clearer.) With Rich and Jim, the focus was more on the bigger picture, telling a story, conveying a mood, how to not let a section go on too long or too short. Both sides (the micro and the macro) were important in my studies, and I’m really glad I learned about the smaller details first and then “opened up” to the larger picture.

I’d say one of my biggest learning experiences has been running our big band. The musicians in our band have told/demonstrated to me what works and what doesn’t. My conducting (I think and I hope) has gotten better by doing regular gigs with the band. Having many gigs has encouraged me to keep writing new material, and the more you write the better you get. By having a regular set of players, the musicians in our band have influenced me to write differently than say a random college jazz ensemble.

In addition, the Metropole Orchestra Arrangers Workshop was a very enlightening experience. And the BMI Jazz Composers Workshop is invaluable as far as honing in your voice as a composer.

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

I really like to read all sorts of books. I also like to see nature when I can. Mountains, forests, bodies of water. For those who know my music, it’s pretty obvious that I love water. I could go by some water source (whether it’s an ocean, stream, or lake) and watch/listen to the waves or trickling water all day if I could.

Music has the power to....

move me, even completely change whatever mood I was in.  Listening to Gorecki’s Third Symphony never fails to make me cry, while listening to some Dixieland or Irish session music can put me into a cheerful mood.

I write music because....

I can’t not write music. Seriously. I’ve just went through a major episode that made me realize this. Growing up, music was my therapy and maybe my closest friend. It was my way of getting my emotions in physical form, much like writing a diary would have been, and regardless how miserable I would be with growing up, I could always go into my own room where the keyboard was, and create a new song or part of a piece.

Mentally I’ve been through some hard times, but music has been the source of comfort and what has kept me going all these years. I notice that when I innocently decide to take a mini “break” from composing, things start to fall apart.

There was a long time, not even too long ago, that I would HATE that I would need to compose and I thought that music was CAUSING my pain. I would think “Oh God! Here’s another chart written... joy! Now I can watch as it doesn’t matter that I wrote another piece because there won’t be an audience for it!” However, my “pain” was related to the external (validation, having an audience, etc.) and not to music itself.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Interview With Scott Ninmer, Jazz Composer

This is the first in a series of interviews with current members of the BMI Jazz Composer's Workshop. With thoughtful consideration, they have answered questions about their compositional process, motivations and aspirations. I hope it will be insightful for musicians, students and fans of progressive big band music.

Our first featured composer is Scott Ninmer.  A native of Taylorville, IL, Ninmer has won many prestigious awards for his work, including the “2 Agosto” International Composing Competition, the Detroit Jazz Festival Arranging Competition, the Jazz Education Network Student Composition Showcase, the Downbeat Magazine Student Music Awards, the New York Youth Symphony First Music Composition Competition, the United States Air Force Sammy Nestico Award, and the ASCAP Foundation Young Jazz Composer Awards.  Additional honors include being selected as a participant in the 2013 Metropole Orkest Arrangers Workshop in Hilversum, The Netherlands, and serving as the lead trombonist in the 2010 Disney All-American College Band in Anaheim, CA.
A graduate of the University of Illinois in jazz performance studying trombone with Jim Pugh, Ninmer recently completed a Master’s degree in jazz composition at the Manhattan School of Music under the tutelage of Jim McNeely.  Ninmer's music can be heard on the University of Illinois Concert Jazz Band's album "Free Play" and the Cal State Long Beach Concert Jazz Orchestra’s album “High and Mighty”.   He also has several compositions and arrangements published through UNC Jazz Press.  For more information, please visit

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 write daily.  I prefer to wake up early and get writing right away.  My brain is most alert in the morning/early afternoon, and since I work four part-time jobs in addition to teaching and other gigs, etc., I want to relax when I get home.  I usually try to write for an hour or two before I start my day. 

My ideal day of composing is when I have a large block of time where I can write for an hour, take a 20-30 min. break, and then continue alternating in this fashion throughout the day.  As my weekends are mostly kept free of commitments, I get a lot of writing done on these days, despite taking a lot of breaks.

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

Initial ideas usually come from improvising at the piano.  Once I’ve found something interesting, I usually come up with a melody and some harmonic ideas.  I usually write all of the material that I will use for the piece at the piano, but I really don’t use very much material in each piece.  Once this is done, I usually play through it a dozen or more times to get it into my head.  This might be at the piano or I might orchestrate it on Sibelius and play it.  I usually hit a brick wall at this point so I take a break, maybe for half an hour, maybe for a week.  I find that when I take a break, my subconscious does a lot of work in processing what I’ve written and finding new avenues.  I will keep coming back to the piece and if nothing happens within a few minutes I stop and do something else without getting frustrated.  Eventually I get an idea and the brick wall comes down.  Then I just write until I hit the next wall and the same process continues.

Do you compose at the piano or away from it?

I mostly compose away from the piano.  When I first start a piece, I improvise at the piano until I come up with something, ranging anywhere from a few seconds to a minute or two of music.  From there it’s completely away from the piano.  I usually write a lot in my head throughout the day, and then just input it directly into Sibelius.

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

I utilize MIDI playback extensively.  Though I don’t rely on the MIDI playback to tell me anything about what will work in an actual performance orchestrationally, it is very helpful in getting an idea of what contrapuntal passages will sound like that are too complex to realize on piano.   I think it’s also helpful to feel the pacing of the piece, even if I have to imagine drums in my head.  Sometimes I use Sibelius as a quick way to try several different orchestrational approaches and see which one I like best, keeping in mind that again, MIDI doesn’t reflect an actual performance.

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

I’m happy with Sibelius!  Nothing comes to mind at present.

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

Transcription has always been a huge part of my development as a jazz composer.  I would guess that 95% of my musical knowledge has come from transcription and analysis.  In high school I transcribed a bunch of “Singers Unlimited” and “Take 6” scores, and in college transcribed many Bob Brookmeyer, Maria Schneider, and Jim McNeely scores either in my head or to piano reduction and studied them extensively.  In my first big band pieces, I would find the central theme of a work and write my own composition based on it.  Though those compositions are fairly derivative, they were immensely helpful in learning the craft.  Though I no longer do this consciously, I’m sure that ideas from various pieces come forth in my music from the hours of listening I have put in.

How important is musical innovation to you?

I can’t really say that I’ve thought that consciously about it.  When I write, I’m trying to write something that I will enjoy listening to, that an audience of both musicians and laymen will enjoy, and that the band will enjoy playing.  I’m also trying to work on things that I may not have worked on before or don’t feel completely comfortable with.  If the piece is really easy to write with no speed bumps along the way, that’s a problem for me as it means I didn’t challenge myself.  In this way, I’m being innovative within my own sphere of compositional output.  But I’m definitely not on a mission to change jazz as we know it every time I write a piece.  However, there are always times when I’m frustrated with an element of sameness that permeates my pieces on some level, and I would like to be more adventuresome in my future writing.  Unfortunately, I have yet to commit to this goal wholeheartedly.

What concepts have you explored in your recent work?

It seems that the majority of my most recent work is largely tonal, utilizing more pop- or classical-oriented harmony instead of jazz harmony.  I don’t really think of harmony in terms of chord symbols, and I think this helps me to write more contrapuntally and freely than I would otherwise.  My most recent piece exhaustively uses the aforementioned harmony in movements of major 3rds, which is a new practice for me.  I’ve gone as far with tonality as I want to for now, so I look forward to returning to my exploration of modal harmony in future pieces.

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

8-12 hours, though this is usually over the course of a week or two when I have some free time.  I rarely second-guess myself, so I think this helps me to write efficiently.

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

In looking at the past year, I've written eighteen big band charts (nine arrangements, nine compositions).  I've also written twelve arrangements for orchestra, a concert band piece, a multi-movement brass quintet piece, and several chamber ensemble pieces.  I also orchestrated a musical that’s hoping to get on Broadway.  I’m lucky in that I have the BMI workshop, a rehearsal band, orchestration lessons, and a handful of commissions to keep me busy writing all the time.

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

I’m ashamed to say that my trombone rarely sees the light of day, as I don’t have much motivation to practice other than pure enjoyment or in preparation for the occasional gig.  I’ve channeled most of my free time into writing.

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’ve never really thought about it.  I grew up listening to the music, and my dad had written some pieces when he was in college, so I guess I was just following in his footsteps.  Writing in my undergrad made me stand out and I loved the thrill of hearing a piece played for the first time by a great band and knowing all of the hard work I spent in learning my craft and writing the piece was worth it.  I think what I love about the big band the most is that unlike small group music, I can have complete control over what is played while, unlike writing for orchestra, I can still leave a large amount of improvisation imbued in the piece.  Balancing the elements of composition and improvisation is very exciting.  Also just hearing the sheer power of seventeen people playing their hearts out!

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

My main source of income is as a copyist/transcriptionist for a few well-known jazz figures.  I also work as the Jazz Manager for the New York Youth Symphony and as the Administrative Assistant for the Manhattan School of Music Residence Life Office, as well as teach a few lessons on the side.

Define success from your vantage point.

Working towards one’s goals with earnest and steadfast devotion.  I don’t think the end result is nearly as important as the process of getting there.

What are your career goals?

Eventually, I would like to be able to make a living solely from writing in any capacity and through teaching if need be.  I am keeping my options open and am always working on improving my abilities in writing in all styles for all instrumentations.  I also love teaching, so I am always welcoming new students to further my abilities in preparation for someday teaching at the collegiate level.

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

I wanted the opportunity to hear other people’s music while getting insight from Jim and Mike on my own pieces.  I’m normally fairly confident in my work, but it’s really nice to have a second and third opinion to help me to see the music in a different way.  It also is nice to have deadlines and it forces me to write more than I probably would be doing otherwise.

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

I have a Masters degree in jazz composition.  Before this, I was completely self-trained.  I have many books on composition, arranging, orchestration, harmony, etc. and dozens of study scores and hundreds of transcriptions.  I think listening intently to big band music has done the most to supplement my training.  I basically learned how to write for big band from listening to Bob Brookmeyer’s “Get Well Soon” album twice a day every day for months during my commute to my summer job.

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

I read a lot.  I take online courses in things I’ve either always wanted to know or just want to brush up on.  I really enjoy good film and TV!

Music has the power to….

make people laugh, cry, smile, frown, or feel any other kind of emotion.  We are ruled by our emotions and moods to some extent, and thus music has the power to affect the choices we make and how we relate to others.  For me, music is an uplifting experience, and I try to showcase that in my own work.

I compose music with the goal of....

creating a feeling that will permeate both the musicians and the audience.  Ideally, I would like the audience to leave a concert in a different mood/state of mind than when they came in and give them something to think about in a purely emotional way and also in an intellectual way.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Three Generations, 88 Keys

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

Three Generations, 88 Keys

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

Ron Paley’s Early Influence

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

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

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

Earl MacDonald, Will Bonness, Ron Paley

Earl Teaches Will

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

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

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

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


Rehearsing the WJO

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

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

Here is some insight into the tunes I have contributed:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, March 8, 2014

My New Favorite Album (du jour)

I've been listening to this album A LOT lately.  I think I'd like to become Vince Mendoza when I grow up.  Enjoy this little sample:

Jim Beard - Revolutions.
with Vince Mendoza and the Metropole Orchestra