Year 2, Month 5 — May

One of the goals of this years Duo Chronicles project is to feature a different instrument each month. Guitarist Dan Balmer certainly needs no introduction to people here in the Pacific Northwest. Dan has been a fixture on the Portland music scene for many years. I have collaborated with Dan in the band “Go By Train” for the past ten years, and am familiar with his playing and compositions. He can generate a huge amount of improvisational energy in his playing.

In writing this composition I wanted to create a vehicle for improvisation, but also have a singable melodic line, with some modern jazz harmony underneath mixed in for good measure. Everyone gets a little solo time and we trade ideas at the end of the piece. It was fun to play off John and Dan’s musical ideas.

Year 2, Month 1 – January

This Duo Chronicles theme is called “January.”  It’s about marking time.  While our personal life cycles rarely fit neatly into the calendar year, January does feel like a marker–both a time to reflect on the past and a time to start fresh.  January is two-sided in this way, just like the Roman deity Janus, the god of endings and beginnings whose two faces look to the past and the future.  This is what I had in mind as I was writing this music.

The piece starts with an open bass solo — a meditation or reflection on the past over a single, minor chord. This is followed by the saxophone’s rubato melody statement that transitions us to the piano’s improvisation on the present.  Here, the form has changed slightly and some chords are extended.  At this point, there is a musical conversation occurring that leads into the future, propelled by the saxophone, over a suspended chord whose open sound contrasts with the minor sound we heard during the bass’s opening reflection on the past.

Bassist Dave Captein joins us on this tune.  One would be hard pressed to find a more solid and versatile bassist anywhere. Thanks to Dave for taking part in this.

In this year’s project, we’ll compose, record and disseminate one song a month for the next twelve months.  While not as rigorous as the last series in which we produced  a song every week for a year, this current project will present its own challenges. We plan to arrange pieces for more instruments and include a variety of guest artists.  We’re using four cameras now (two Flips and two iPhones). This presents John with more video editing options, but also makes it more challenging.

We hope you enjoy this Duo Chronicles 2012 project.

Week 51 – Long Way Home

I had been working with the elements of this weeks composition “Long Way Home” for a little while. I was hearing other elements besides piano and saxophone to fill out the arrangement. The programmed drum loop was created in a software application called Ableton Live which we played along with, kind of like playing with a drum machine albeit a little more intelligent. This is something I have been wanting explore a little bit more is combining electronics with acoustic instruments in a live setting. This requires thinking about the process much differently than the traditional one track at time in the recording studio way of doing things.
I often think of traveling when I hear music. A lot of my favorite music has that kind of quality to it. Home is a common concept to all of us, although it might mean different things specifically. Getting out of a familiar environment is good and can be inspiring, but arriving back home can comforting. Unfortunately that path is not always linear, hence the long way home.

I had been working with the elements of this weeks composition “Long Way Home” for a little while. I was hearing other elements besides piano and saxophone to fill out the arrangement. The programmed drum loop was created in a software application called Ableton Live which we played along with, kind of like playing with a drum machine albeit a little more intelligent. This is something I have been wanting explore a little bit more is combining electronics with acoustic instruments in a live setting. This requires thinking about the process much differently than the traditional one track at time in the recording studio way of doing things.
I often think of traveling when I hear music. A lot of my favorite music has that kind of quality to it. Home is a common concept to all of us, although it might mean different things specifically. Getting out of a familiar environment is good and can be inspiring, but arriving back home can comforting. Unfortunately that path is not always linear, hence the long way home.

Week 48 – Law Of Averages

As we head to the final few weeks of the Duo Chronicles project, musically we have covered many different styles of jazz. This weeks tune, “Law Of Averages” has a meditative-gospel sound to my ears. Often music defies one singular category so descriptive terms are piled on and on like, acid-electronic-fusion-contemporary jazz, for example. At a certain point too many adjectives render musical description more confusing than useful. This descriptive process usually varies quite a bit from individual to individual.

The form is based around a repeated six bar chord progression that repeats and is varied somewhat to give a more through-composed feel. Subtle, but effective I think. Just to give a little bit of forward momentum. John and I both take short solos. The music doesn’t necessarily need virtuosic-type solo improvisations, shorter more thematic solos do just fine. Also, I added a track of organ, just to fill out the overall sound, a little bit of musical “glue.” John had a nice idea to trade soloing over the the final chords of the composition; some musical dialogue.

Week 46 – True North

True North, is thought of as the direction along the earth’s surface towards the geographic North Pole. This the title for this weeks composition. Throughout this project it has been more challenging to write about the music than to work on the music. There is no time really for analysis in the moment, one can be more objective after the fact. Not to say that I  haven’t  found ideas in words and their combinations, because I have.  I think of true north as a metaphor for looking for truth in a direct way. In this case, true north being the path and the North Pole the destination, or the direction of travel at least. In general my aim in composing to capture the essence of a time, place and thought, which also is what recording happens to do.

In thinking about the music from the music point of view, there are elements from classical, jazz and pop in this composition. The influence of jazz, in the harmonies and improvisation, classical, in the through-composed form, and pop, in the repetition of a musical “hook” throughout. That’s just me looking through the lens however, you the listener can draw your own conclusions, and decide what sound means to you.

Week 44 – The Road Taken

The title “The Road Taken” is based on of one of more popular Robert Frost most poems, “The Road Not Taken.” The whole idea for the music stems from a particular chord that I like to use, a major chord with the 4th added so a kind of consonant dissonance occurs between the 3rd and 4th steps in the chord. In improvising one would usually refer to the mode, in this case the Ionian mode, which is the 1st mode of major scale harmony. I like the contemplative nature of this sound, open to me, and good place to start the music from. The melody then ascends and descends alternating between major and minor chords. The improvising takes place over the form of the melody with the 1st chord extended for a bit at the beginning. I liked how this distinguished the piano and saxophone solos. If one looks at the written lead sheet there is a two measure ending. On the take that we used however, I liked just fading on two repeated chords, an ending just seemed too final. The aspect of recording influenced the form and arrangement of the composition which I find interesting. Recording becomes part of the composition process.

Week 40 – Perimeter

In writing this composition, I decided not to write chord changes purposely. This gives the improviser the utmost freedom in a sense, hence the term “free jazz” or “avant-garde” which have been coined to describe this style. Without a harmonic structure the improviser must then create some shape on his/her own or by interacting with other musicians. Since the melody is comprised of mostly two-bar phrases, John made an interesting suggestion to improvise based off these phrases or two bar cells or cellular improvisation. By that I mean that the improviser is free to play these melodic fragments in any order or repeat them without rules. This shows the influence of twentieth-century classical music, but with the interaction aspect of jazz. This way of playing then defines the structure. We did three takes, all of which were quite different due to the open nature of the music, but the third one seemed to have the best interaction.

Week 39 – The Valley Below

Influence is all around us whether we are conscious of it or not. Ultimately what resonates with us comes out in how we express ourselves and in our art. Chances are if a thought or idea resonates with you, it probably does with someone else as well. I like to think of this as a kind of collective consciousness. I listen to music frequently while driving, as I suspect many people might do. Two CD’s that have been in the car lately (I don’t get around to changing them that often) are Brad Mehldau’s latest “Highway Rider” and a mix CD of Foo Fighters songs. So I was influenced by this music I’m sure when I wrote “The Valley Below” two days ago. Not because I want to sound like Brad Mehldau, but something in that music speaks to me and inspires me to find my own musical thoughts, exploring in a similar language.

i think John mentioned before that he too had drawn some inspiration from “Highway Rider,” in his animated video of his tune “Twenty Seven.”

“The Valley Below” also explores some of the ideas that are prominent to my musical thoughts. Namely the influence of pop music in terms of a musical “hook.”  Being that is an instrumental piece, there are no lyrics to evoke imagery. So in terms of musical form, taking four measure sections and changing and developing them to create a larger shape or arrangement. They are like characters in a musical short story.

Week 38 – The Island

The title for this weeks composition is a ode to the ending of the popular television show “Lost,” which is ending this month after six seasons. Much of the appeal of the show for me is not only the individual characters and their stories, but also the use of time as well. Flash-backs, flash-forwards and side-wise time elements are all part of the episodes. “The Island” is as much a character as anybody in the show. Does it represent good or bad? Or maybe a combination of both? i think that no clear conclusion can be reached, which makes it a little like music to me. It can be elusive, meaning different things at different times to different people. We still experience music or sound in linear fashion, but live in an increasing non-linear world. Perhaps a little like The Island?

Week 37 – Ritual

A ritual has an inherent shape or form built in. From this one can let the story unfold in this space. This space is the possibility of sound or rather one possibility at one given time. Improvising to me is like observing and observance is a ritual.

I really like the vibe John and I got on this take. In fact there was only one take so there were no others to choose from. One of the challenges of playing in the duo format is how to to fill out the space, in terms of texture and rhythm. I guess I liked the vibe because there was a natural flow between the melody and the solo improvisations, an arc of circular nature from beginning to the end.