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 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 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 35 – Another Noon

This week continues my trend of writing pieces that were influenced by specific writers or compositions.  “Another Noon” was heavily influenced by a piece called “Hi Noon” by Justin Morell, a guitarist that I’ve been playing with in the Damian Erskine Project.  Justin’s composition uses a set of drop-two voicings (I’m not going to go into the theory here, but the technique leads to chords that cover a wide range and have a fairly open sound to them) that sound rather melodic on their own, with another melody that seems to float on top of it.

For my composition, I employed the same technique of drop-two voicings with an additional melody, and then filled out some of the inside parts using a woodwind choir made up of flute, soprano sax, alto sax, and bass clarinet.  The result is a simple but lush harmonic foundation for the piece — so simple, that you might not even notice that it’s in 7/4 at first.

In the second half of the composition, the piano part gets rhythmically and harmonically more intense, while the woodwind parts turn to more long, held-out notes than the melodic phrases they were playing earlier.  On top of that, we added a second piano track that has no written part — it’s a sort of abstract solo on top of everything going on with the woodwind and piano ostinato figures.

Seventeen weeks to go and we still have plenty of ideas we’re looking forward to trying out.

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 32 – Surface Tension

This week’s video is once again the product of some recent inspirations that have been working their way into both my writing and my playing — everything from playing Terry Riley with Third Angle to playing Damian Erskine’s music for his upcoming CD release.

The piece starts with a simple piano motif in 5/4.  The motif varies slightly through the written sections of the piece, but stays fairly static — something that serves a roots for the piece while the tenor melody floats on top.  In a larger group setting, I’d love to hear the piano part be accompanied by some sort of constant-8th note percussion, like tabla.

The tenor melody is made up of simple melodic fragments that use rhythms like triplets and groups of 4 over 3 to, like I mentioned before, float above the piano part without being too firmly rooted with the 8th-note motion below it.  Thus, the title: “Surface Tension.”

The solo section breaks away from the piano motif set up at the beginning and brings the piece down to a much more simple and sparse feeling.  Clay builds intensity in his solo until he cues on to the sax solo, which continues to build rather than coming down and starting another melodic arc.  Eventually, the last melodic section is cued and one by one, tenor parts are added until the melody is being played in four part harmony.

Clay and I have been experimenting recently with overdubbing woodwind parts to achieve different colors.  You can hear that in last week’s Twenty Seven where I wrote for a combination of saxes and melodica and you’ll hear it in an upcoming piece of Clays as well that involves an interesting combination of soprano sax, flute, tenor sax, and bass clarinet.  For Surface Tension, I took a different route – instead of layering different woodwinds to provide a new color, I choose to overdub four of the same instrument — the sound of one player being overdubbed against themselves (rather than a section of four different tenor players) was a color that I wanted to explore for this piece.  I’ve been hooked on the sound ever since hearing Brecker use that effect on early Steps Ahead records.

As usual, you can check out the score by downloading the sheet music below.

Week 31 – Twenty Seven

This piece is different than what we’ve done before.

As I mentioned in Week 28, some of the performances from Norwegian groups at the Portland Jazz Festival inspired me to explore different avenues and directions with my compositions for Duo Chronicles.  This meant finding both a different sonic palette to write for as well as different compositional forms and note choices.

This particular piece is heavily inspired by the Christian Wallumrod Ensemble, which played a set of through-composed music at the festival — not the usual melody, solo, melody forms that we’re so used to hearing in jazz.  My piece, “Twenty Seven,” much like a classical piece, is fully through-composed and is the first of the Duo Chronicles pieces to not include any improvisation, besides phrasing and inflections.

Sometimes, when writing a piece and trying to explore new sounds, it’s useful to have some sort of ‘rule’ that makes you break out of your normal box as a composer.  When I studied with Dick Oatts in New York, he was big on this idea.  In fact, on his record South Paw, I believe nearly every piece was originally written as an exercise with some sort of rule in mind.  For this piece, I decided to try to justify every note in the piece by being either a 3rd or a 9th away from the previous note or another note in the chord.  This, combined with the fact that it was week 27 of the project when I started writing it, lead to the title (9 x 3 = 27).

Towards the end of the piece, I abandoned the rule briefly — I decided that it was better to break the rule and have the piece sound the way that I wanted rather than stick to the rule and compromise the sound — after all, the goal of the rule was to inspire a new sound, which I had achieved at the beginning of the piece.

I know that Clay and I both have some new compositions coming up soon that explore different sounds and instruments (note the new melodica Clay’s playing in “Twenty Seven”).  We’re excited to share these new ideas with you.

Remember, you can always get our videos from iTunes in podcast format (HD quality, too):

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.