Week 52 – The Final Week

Well, we made it.  52 weeks later, we’ve put up a new video every single Tuesday.  Every week, a new arrangement, a new recording, a new video, and most of the time, a new composition altogether.

Most people’s reaction to me mentioning that we’re finishing the project is that they can’t believe it’s been a year already.  In some ways, I agree — it doesn’t seem like that long ago that Clay and I were first trying to figure out what we wanted to do with this series and how we wanted to make it happen.  On the other hand, I’ve learned so much, written so much, and spent so much time uploading and editing video that it really does seem like a year has gone by.

Now that we’re finishing up, I can already tell that I’m going to miss doing this.  Getting the chance to record new music this regularly has been a pleasure.  Learning how to play better as a duo has been a great learning experience — something that will carry through to other projects as well.  In fact, I think that there were plenty of lessons from this project that I’ll be putting to use later, whether they are technical things like how to best compress a video to make it look good on YouTube or more metaphysical things like musical interaction with just two voices.

For the last video, we decided that for the first time, instead of presenting a new piece, we wanted to bring back some of the music from past videos.  Each choice has a bit of a metaphorical reasoning.

Part I is a piece called Chrysalis, which was from week one of the project.  At that point, Clay and I had barely figured out what we were doing, especially in the technical sense.  The original was recorded with one camera, no sound equipment besides the mic on the camera, and the editing was done with iMovie.  We thought it would be fitting to go back and redo the piece with all of our technical and production advancements, as well as with a new musical direction.  If you really want to get metaphorical with the title, you could look at the project emerging from the chrysalis over time and growing.

Part II is Clay’s composition Always April.  Ever since we recorded it, I’ve felt like this piece well represents the musical goals of the project.  It’s certainly jazz-related, although not in a typical swing fashion.  It’s focused on a beautiful melody, with the type of chord changes that we both tend to gravitate towards when writing.  The title also seemed to fit for a piece about the middle section of a year-long project.

Finally, we transition into Part III — a composition of mine called One Foot Forward.  We chose this because of the upbeat energy the piece has, and once again, the metaphorical meaning of the title — we’re finishing this project, but we both have one foot forward into the next already.

Try to make it through all 10 minutes — we’re proud of the last installment that we’ve done.  If you’ve been watching since the beginning, you may enjoy seeing the different directions we take the pieces.  If you’re relatively new to the project, this should give a good glimpse into what we’ve done for the past year.

Thanks so much, new fans and old, for watching!

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 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.

Week 25 – Rejuvenation

“Rejuvination” is a simple tune that I wrote based on the keyboard groove you hear in the intro – sort of an “Afro-Pop” type thing.  Simple chord changes, simple melody, but a good feeling, thus the title.

If you check out the sheet music, you can see that we ditched the original melody that I wrote in favor of having us both play the keyboard figure.  I also play along with the montuno on the bridge some of the time.

Hope you enjoy it – make sure to stick around for the “reprise” at the end.

Week 10 – Horizons

“Horizons” was written after a lot of listening to Keith Jarrett’s Country from the record My Song featuring Jan GarbarekWe’ve mentioned before that our music is heavily influenced by the European Quartet, both from a compositional standpoint and a sonic perspective.

The song is relatively simple – it takes a motif and moves it through a few keys, using simple harmonic motion with the exception of the last chord.

All of jazz isn’t fast, high, loud, and filled with ii-Vs…

(Remember: you can now subscribe to the Duo Chronicles videos on iTunes)

Week 8 – Leaving AC

No, the title of this weeks song is not a reference to air conditioning. I suppose it is more of a reference to change, which in itself  can be a constant paradoxically. In this case, change of location and period of time. Fall is also a season of change, some things gained, some things lost. I think of this song as more or less a template. That is the harmonic rhythm changes pretty consistently, which allows for the improviser to create and experiment with different textures throughout the solo form. In fact in practicing, sometimes I have just played over the chord changes, for me that has just as much weight as the melody. So it seemed natural to start the recording by just improvising on the chords. When John comes in, then we hear the melody.

Normally I would play this on acoustic piano, but my piano was really out of tune, so I turned my keyboards and layered a pad sound behind the Rhodes sound to give it overall more texture and depth. John plays tenor which matches well with the vibe of the tune. He plays a solo in a different key before we modulate back to the original key for the last melody section. Somehow I always seem to get myself into a corner in composing, so instead of transitioning from the end of a song back to the top, just modulate to a new key. That’s change, right?

Week 6 – Little Dragon

When Clay was mixing the audio from this recording session, he mentioned that he “thought it had a bit of Ralph Towner, Oregon-ish vibe to it.”  I’m sure this is true, as Ralph Towner is my biggest influence on my compositions, although the chord changes to this piece are actually based on a Charlie Mariano song (as usual, the sheet music is available).  It’s definitely not a strictly “jazz” song.  For those of you looking for that, though, don’t worry – we have some more bebop coming soon.

Regular listeners/watchers will notice a couple off differences in our setup this week.  The first is simple: we’re using an electronic keyboard for the piece instead of the acoustic piano.  It seemed to fit the vibe of the song.

The second is more significant: we are recording using microphones and ProTools rather than the built-in mics on the cameras.  Although we won’t be able to do this for all of our videos, we should be able to for most, meaning the sound quality will be much better than it was before.  Let us know what you think.