Week 49 – Aurora

“Aurora” is an attempt to do something new in the Duo Chronicles project — a way to use some techniques that we haven’t yet explored in the 48 previous tunes.

The song is based on a simple melody (in fact, the sheet music we used had the temporary title “Simple Melody”) with an equally simple harmonic underpinning.  If one wanted to analyze it from a jazz point of view, the form is derived from the blues, although you might not realize it without stretching your ears a bit.

The first track we recorded was acoustic piano and flute, but we layered on quite a few other instruments to fill out the sound, including piccolo, alto saxophone, bass clarinet, and electronic keyboard (playing a celeste type of sound).

If you listen carefully to the opening sound, when the screen fades to white, the chord that sounds like a synthesizer is actually a technique that Clay suggested that we record after we happened upon it by mistake while warming up.  The chord is actually made by recording the resonance inside the piano made by playing saxophone pointed towards the piano while holding down the sustain pedal.  It took quite a bit of audio editing to make it audible in the mix, but I think it was worth it for the interesting texture.

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 47 – Up in the Air

This New Orleans-inspired piece is a blues of sorts (in the Kind-of-Blue sense) with a second-line type groove.  If I remember correctly, I wrote it just before a jam session, where I tried it out for the first time.  Despite the simple sounding melody and chord changes, it can be a challenge to keep together on the first performance because of a time signature change in the middle of the piece.  It makes perfect sense in context with the melody and the chord changes, but it can throw people for a loop the first time they read it.

Clay and I have been playing this song for a few years now, in a number of different formats, including in an acoustic combo (including with Clay’s group, the Upper Left trio), in an electric fusion group, and as a duo.  In fact, we played this song on our first appearance on a podcast, when I appeared on Strange Love Live for the first time.

For this performance, we rethought the form a bit, but all of the familiar elements are still there.

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 45 – Affirmation

In the bebop era, it was a common practice to take a popular song and write a new melody over the familiar chord changes.  Charlie Parker wrote many of his tunes this way, including Donna Lee (the changes are from Indiana), Ornithology (on How High the Moon), and Koko (Cherokee).  For “Affirmation,” I chose to write my own “contrafact” (the technical name for a song written using this method) on a tune of Charlie Parker’s called Confirmation.

The primary motivation for playing a song like this was to have a bebop song that we could play as a clarinet and piano duet — I wanted a challenge for myself (clarinet has never been my strongest instrument, although it is the woodwind I started on) as well as a new color for the Duo Chronicles project.  It turned out simple and straightforward, but at the same time fun and exactly what I was going for.

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 43 – Quadrivium

Quadrivium — from Latin, meaning “a crossroads.  A place where four roads meet

This composition is a modern choral of sorts, with four clarinet parts playing what might be more traditional sung in four part harmony, or played on an organ.  My inspiration came from the fabulous ECM recordings of saxophonist Jan Garbarek improvising over the top of the incredible four-part vocal group called the Hilliard Ensemble.  But, unlike their work, which sticks to very authentic early-music compositions, I chose to write a new piece with some modern twists thrown in.

Clay gets to play the part of Jan, using the melodica’s bright sound to cut through the darker sonority of the clarinets and bass clarinets below him.  Most of his part is improvised, with a short melodic hook that happens once in the middle and once at the end.

Week 42 – The Memory of Water

This is a special week for Duo Chronicles — not only do we have a regular duet video to present, we also have a video of a different performance of the same song featuring a spoken-word performance by writer Lynn Darroch.

“The Memory of Water” (the title is co-opted from Lynn’s story, featured in the other video), is divided into two distinct sections.  The first section has a melodic statement that repeats twice, each time through a different progression of chords.  The second section has what is called a “pedal point,” meaning a repeated common tone, usually in the low register.

When Clay and I set out to record the piece, we decided that the second section of the piece might fit will with some extended techniques.  In particular, Clay experiments with using different percussive effects on the piano, including an idea taken from modern classical “prepared piano” pieces that involve putting objects inside of the piano.  In this case, it was a piece of paper on top of the strings.

Special: The Memory of Water with Lynn Darroch

This is a special video project, featuring a collaboration with writer/journalist/musician Lynn Darroch, who has been following our project since the beginnings and has been kind enough to feature us on KMHD and in the Jazz Society of Oregon’s JazzScene magazine.  Lynn has been working on his own video projects, pairing his spoken-word pieces with jazz performances from artists such as Randy Porter, David Evans, Pere Soto, and others.

This particular video features a composition of mine from week 42 of our project, called “The Memory of Water.”  The piece was actually untitled until Lynn wrote the words to accompany it, at which point I co-opted the title for the song as well.  Clay and I would both like to thank Lynn for working with us on this piece.

Here’s what Lynn has to say about the piece:

When Clay and John asked to write a story to go with this composition, I immediately thought of water. And my desire to develop a magic realism suited to the Pacific Northwest. I also thought of singing whales, and though this story’s not about whales, what we know about them may well apply here …

Every year, when humpback whales gather off the Mexican coast, the males arrive singing. Early in the season, each whale’s song is short, simple and different from the others. But as time passes, they adjust; by season’s end, every whale is singing the same long, complex tune. The next year, each returns with only fragments of the previous song, but all leave singing in unison again, though the collective tune is slightly different every year.

Week 41 – Be Smart, Be Cool…

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been at Portland Center Stage as part of the orchestra for a production of the “25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”  The show is a musical comedy, following a rather unusual group of children (as well as some audience volunteers) through a farcical spelling bee in which the word the students are challenged with is just as likely to be chosen because of its ridiculous definition as its difficulty to spell.

The score to the show is an uncommon combination of instruments, with myself on reeds (flute, clarinet, and alto saxophone), Liz Byrd on cello, Ben Wasson on percussion, Kurt Crowley on synthesizer, and our musical director, Rick Lewis, on piano.  Instead of playing from an orchestra pit below and in front of the stage, our orchestra instead plays behind the back wall of the stage (if Superman were in the audience with his X-ray vision, he’d see us performing behind the actors) with the music piped in through a sound system.

William Finn’s compositions for the show run the gamut from quirky themes that complement the comedy on stage, to powerful melodies that support the more emotional moments.  Unlike some musicals, where orchestras get bored quickly with ironically the often less-than-musical compostions, there’s always something new to find in Finn’s score, which I’ve been scouring to find bits and pieces to serve as inspirations for Duo Chronicles pieces.

The title for this piece is taken from the lyrics of a song in the show called “Woe is Me,” sung by a character who is pushed by her two dads to “be smart, be cool, be adult” and “be remarkably adroit in social situations.”  I toyed with other titles that didn’t sound as flippant, but in the end, it seemed like that line just worked best.  In the show, the cast breaks into a Stomp-inspired dance section in the middle of “Woe is Me,” where the 3-part vocals harmonies are accompanied by the percussion sounds made by clapping, stomping, and dancing on stage.  Something about 3-part vocal a cappella always gets me interested, so from the first time that I heard that section performed by the PCS cast, I knew I wanted to do something with it.

For the Duo Chronicles piece, I took that section and started altering it bit by bit.  The first change was the time signature — instead of being 4/4 like the piece in the show, our version is in 7/4.  The next, was the structure — we start with the “Be Smart, Be Cool” section, and the “Woe is Me ” hook happens in the middle.  The vocals have been replaced by three overdubbed saxophone parts.  Instead of the Stomp-inspired percussion, Clay and I use a couple tracks of clapping and a track of using storage boxes as percussion instruments.

Throughout the song, I tried to reference each of the distinct sections from Finn’s composition.  There are direct references in the piano part, the clarinet parts, and certainly the saxophone parts.  After all of the revisions and editing, making it fit the Duo Chronicles style, it ended up farther from Finn’s “Woe is Me” than I had intended originally, but only because Clay and I are putting our own spin on things.  Check out the sheet music from the link below.

Since I’m at Portland Center Stage doing this show eight times a week until the end of June, it wouldn’t surprise me if another Finn-inspired song makes its way into the Duo Chronicles songbook before we’re done.