Week 34 – Souvenirs of Memory

This week’s video was shot at the home of a friend who has a very nice Steinway piano and some colorful artwork. Location recording can be more tricky logistically, but having done this for a few weeks now everything went surprisingly smoothly.

There is a theme of dualism this composition. First the two alto saxophone tracks. Then in the solo section trading between the piano and alto. I relate this to idea of memory, whether long-term or short-term. How accurate is either really? is memory tied to experience? Does that change over time? Really depends on personal perspective I guess.

Music definitely triggers memory and vice versa. I have listened to a piece of music that I haven’t heard in a while and heard it quite differently. Maybe hearing new things. One thing is for sure, even though music is experienced in a linear-based timeframe, memory can be timeless or even fragmented jumping from place to place.

Have any of you listeners had experiences relating to music and memory?

Week 33 – Cascade

When I was thinking of possible titles for this piece of music, flow is a word that kept coming to mind. Flow, in how it relates to water and also the flow of information or knowledge. By definition the word cascade fits perfectly. One of the definitions for cascade is: “a small waterfall, typically one of several that fall in stages down a steep slope.”  I imagine this slope might be slippery as well. The flow of water is also linear, like a live music performance. There is no going back. Each decision leads to the next musical moment. The flow of water is a also seamless in a way that makes time seem irrelevant.

A four-part chorale-like section bookends this piece. I was imagining a 20th century version of a Bach chorale if you will. Instead of a vocal choir,  I orchestrated for soprano saxophone, flute, tenor saxophone and bass clarinet. John adeptly creates this woodwind choir through overdubbing. in fact, I think this is his Duo Chronicles debut on bass clarinet. Such a cool sound.

Week 30 – Ides of March

The Ides of March refers to the 15th of March so I suppose we are a few weeks late with this one. Julius Caesar was killed on this day and was warned of his impending death, but didn’t take heed. I choose this title more in relation to the fact the Spring makes a brief appearance and then withdraws, but it is clear that a change of season is coming. The shape or form of this composition is a subtle rise throughout, culminating in a somewhat deceptive harmonic resolution in the end. Just because a piece of music starts on a minor chord doesn’t mean it can’t end on a major one.  The rain and wind may blow, but eventually must break, in its own cadence, its own time.

Week 29 – Blues

It always comes back to the blues, or in the immortal words of Joe Williams, “everyday I have the blues.”  By that I mean, the 12 bar form that jazz musicians often use as a template for improvising. The blues can be simple, complex or some combination of the two. The blues can be sad, mournful or happy and upbeat. Basically a wide range of emotion can be projected. Same with tempo anywhere from super slow to blistering fast. So I guess part of the appeal is the versatility and freedom possible when playing a blues. If you attend a jam session chances are good that you will hear a blues at some point.

So the title for this week is simple, just blues. I thought it appropriate to take a melody that I had written several years and explore it through lens of today. I think John and I draw from the blues vernacular, but also explore harmonic and rhythmic ideas from a more modern standpoint, a blend of the two ends of the spectrum.

Note: Duo Chronicles will be performing live at Brasserie Montmartre on March 18th

Week 26 – Any Which Way (But Loose)

Some of you may recognize the title of this tune from a Clint Eastwood movie from years ago. Although not a great movie, I like the title and thought it summed up this weeks tune musically.

About ten years ago I started using manuscript paper notebooks to write down composition ideas, chord voicings etc… Kind of like an artist using a sketch book I suppose. Occasionally I will be browsing through or looking for a particular idea I’ve written down in the notebooks. This weeks tune came about through an idea (first two bars of the bass line) that was a sketch for something else that was from years ago. From there the bass and melody line developed pretty quickly, but I intentionally kept the chord structure open, harmonically speaking. In fact I didn’t really write in chord changes. Not that this is a free tune (music without predefined chord structures.) Rather I thought the melody and bass should imply the chord, giving the improviser freedom and to get away from the chord/scale relationship that sometimes seems too present to me in the improvising processs. In talking about how to approach improvising with my students, I think it is important to remember that a scale merely represents possible note choices to a given harmony, vertically. Musical lines are linear, they exist in time. The challenge is how manage note choices to form these musical lines in time (linear) and also imply the chord changes.

Week 22 – Common Ground

The initial idea for “Common Ground” came pretty quickly and then details like form and instrumentation came together more slowly. A few things come to mind about this tune. One, is how ideas come about in the composing process. I have tried off and on to write away from an instrument altogether. Mostly unsuccessfully unfortunately. There are a couple of reasons why it might be good though. After playing an instrument for a while your hands tend to fall in certain patterns instead of relying on your ear to guide you. So without your instrument you have to really hear your ideas. Also when I’m writing for instruments other than the piano, it really helps to have some knowledge of that instrument’s range, sound etc… In that respect I’m glad I had the experience of playing the trumpet for many years in school bands. One definitely cannot play the trumpet without taking breaths or other woodwind instruments as well for that matter. In this tune I thought some kind of interplay between the soprano sax and flute might be interesting sound and it seemed to work pretty well orchestration-wise. Recently I was playing an instrument that I hadn’t played in a year or so, an old Wurlitzer electric piano. For some reason the sound and feel of the instrument drew out some of the musical ideas in this tune. I think sometimes a certain instrument can do that, not sure why. So perhaps this music wouldn’t have come about if I hadn’t been playing on the Wurlitzer? Hard to say.

Lately I’ve listening to music by the Brazilian guitarist/pianist Egberto Gismonti and I think some of that sound seeped in unconsciously. Also I was thinking about how Antonio Carlos Jobim develops his melodies and harmonic structures. Definitely one of my all time favorite composers. In fact when playing with jazz musicians and it comes time to play a Latin-type tune, most of the time a Jobim tune is suggested. I think there is a reason for that.

As for the title and its meaning? Well not sure if there is a definitive answer but, I am always trying to find a balance (musically and otherwise) between being tied to ideas and being open to unfamiliar ones or the ones that emerge unconsciously. This music seemed to reflect that to me.

Week 21 – Ice-Berg

For this week’s composition, Ice-Berg, I thought the clarinet would be a good choice. Luckily, John can play pretty much all of the instruments in the woodwind family. That is versatility for you.

A lot of the written music you see as a jazz musician is in the form of a lead sheet. A lead sheet usually contains the melody and a set of chord changes. The chord changes are also usually used for improvising as well as accompanying the melody. Chord changes could be thought of as musical shorthand, they give you a harmonic roadmap, but don’t necessarily spell out all the details. Sometimes it is difficult to really describe a chord voicing that I want, it is just easier to write out the notes. So if you take a look at the PDF for Ice-Berg you will see the chords written musically as well as the chord symbols. The second dilemma was that chords were pretty difficult to improvise over. Pretty chromatic. In this case I decided to play shapes over the harmony instead of worrying that every note fit every chord. Is there really such a thing as a wrong note? As long the note that follows makes sense to the previous one, does it matter? Music is not static like a painting. In taking that approach I also wanted the melody to always be played in order to provide some continuity. Basically to keep it from being too atonal sounding. The classic recording of Nefertiti by the Miles quintet of 1960’s basically play the melody chorus after chorus. The effect is a more subtle change than drastic.

What is interesting is what causes one to hear a sound as dissonant? In western music we have 12 individual notes, that are divided into octaves and repeated. Combinations of two notes form intervals, with three notes a triad and so on. Generally speaking the interval of a 5th is considered consonant while a minor 2nd dissonant. My harmonic approach is this tune was use dissonant and consonant intervals side by side. The music of twentieth-century composer Alban Berg made use of dissonance as well as the serial composition, the use of 12 tone rows. The line between harmony and atonality begins to disappear, or melt like an Ice-Berg. Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

Week 16 – Ode To Joy

I have a tendency to wax poetic when I talk about music. I don’t know, I can’t help it. Sure I like talking about technique and craft, but sound, how does one describe sound? How does it make you feel? Everyone feels something different. My default word is “vibe.” I think if something is true, if there is truth in there, it has a vibe. Kind of like the cliche, if it feels right, it is right, which also makes sense to me. I think this week’s song (and arrangement based on Ode To Joy, from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony) is going for that.

The melody to Ode to Joy is set to a poem by the German poet Friedrich Schiller. While the melody is simple (a beginning band can play it), it is also powerful and resounding. Kind of analogous to an architect building a skyscraper, Beethoven took musical motifs and built musical skyscrapers out of them. One aspect of Beethoven the composer that I like is that, he made lots of revisions and changes in the compositional/arranging process. Really struggled, whereas someone like Mozart, his music has that kind of flows from the pen vibe. Every note is right in place. Of course some of this might have had to do with Beethoven being in the Romantic era and Mozart in the Classical era. Stylistic differences.

Gospel music can be infectious. The sound is uplifting. So it seemed natural to me to combine the gospel tinge with the melody to Ode to Joy. I don’t really like musical genre descriptions, but here you go, gospel-jazz tinged Beethoven.

Week 13 – Curveball

In baseball, a pitcher uses a variety of different pitches to get batters to miss hitting the ball. With a curveball, the ball appears to be in one place and suddenly moves, possibly to the batter’s dismay.

The element of surprise can be effective in music too. Not necessarily random change, but in taking chances both rhythmically and harmonically. Sometimes the composition presents that itself. The main section for improvising in this week’s tune, “Curveball,” is an 8-bar section where the chords change each measure. Harmonically, they are more related to modes in my mind, both from the major and melodic minor scales. Harmonies are changing quickly here, although repeating in a pattern.  The trick is create a line or texture that uses the notes in common between them. In this case, John and I start out trading a set number of bars then eventually it dissolves into more of a polyphonic texture.

To me this song is a little darker in mood, mainly due to the harmonic tension perhaps, somewhat ECM-ish for these shorter, grayer days.