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 50 – Common Roots

One of the reasons that the Duo Chronicles project has been so much fun for me is that Clay and I have similar approaches to playing jazz and similar influences that guided us to that approach.  “Common Roots,” for example, has a modern-gospel style, similar to something you might hear from Russell Ferrante and the Yellowjackets (the working title was “Ferrante-ish” while I was composing it).

It’s not meant to be a complex song — it’s just meant to feel good.  While experimenting with complex harmonies, rhythms, and melodies can be fun for us to explore, it’s nice to occasionally play something that feels good without pushing into something esoteric just for the sake of complexity.

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.

Special: Visual Animated Score for “Twenty Seven”

Most of the time, when I hear music, I have initial feelings about whether I like or dislike it and down the line (maybe next time I’m at a record store) that may influence my decision to buy or not buy the album.  A couple of weeks ago, I came across the EPK for Brad Mehldau’s newest album, titled “Highway Rider,” and hearing the music provoked a much more immediate reaction — I knew that I had to buy the album and listen to it immediately.  After buying and downloading the album from iTunes, I started digging around on Mehldau’s website and found an animated score for one of the songs.

This seemed like the perfect way to present the Duo Chronicles material.  We already provide videos and sheet music files, so why not combine the two?

After quite a bit of research and planning, I came up with what I thought would be the best method to create that sort of video using the tools at my disposal.  The final product was made with Finale 2010 (for the sheet music itself), Gimp (to edit the sheet music into separate image files), and Final Cut Express (to animate the image files and combine them with the audio track).

I chose to use the technique on “Twenty Seven,” a piece from a couple of weeks ago that was completely through composed, meaning that the score represented everything that was played — no improvisation to deal with.  “Twenty Seven” also had a few instruments (melodica, soprano sax, tenor sax, and piano), making the five-staff score more interesting to represent than just a piano/sax duet with only three staffs.

Without going into too much detail, the basic process for creation of the video was:

  • Create a score that fit on one page (about 110 inches long and 5 inches tall)
  • Cut the score horizontally to make separate files for each instrument
  • Cut those resulting files vertically to break up the piece into sections (the result was about 50 separate image files)
  • Line up the different sections of the score with the audio track in Final Cut and add animations

The amount of time that it took to create the project makes it prohibitive to do for each Duo Chronicles piece, but it’s definitely something we’d like to explore further for the occasional video.

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 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 28 – Off Kilter

As I mentioned last week, this year’s Portland Jazz Festival just wrapped up.  Some of the most interesting music that I heard at the festival came from several Norwegian musicians that came through as part of the festival — particularly Trygve Seim’s duo with Frode Haltli and the Christian Wallumrod Ensemble.  Rather than getting caught up in endless solos full of eighth notes, the Norwegians tended to play as an ensemble, rarely featuring any one particular musician.

The piece that I wrote for this week reflects some of the lessons I learned while listening to these groups.  The piece is truly a duet — there’s a small piano solo in the middle and a small saxophone solo near the end, but the majority of the piece is the two of us interweaving a relatively simple melodic idea.  The title, “Off Kilter,” comes from the fact that the piece, while generally a waltz in 3/4, has a couple of 2/4 bars thrown in that give the piece a different lilt than if it were in a constant 3.

If you check out the sheet music, you’ll see that both of us stay close to what is on the page — Clay’s piano part, for example, is completely written out for the majority of the piece, rather than being improvised based on a set of written chord changes like is often the case for jazz piano parts.  In many ways, the piece is more similar to a classical etude than a jazz piece — another idea inspired by the new music I saw at the festival.

Next week, we’ll be visit nearly the polar opposite of the spectrum — a dirty slow blues from Clay.

Special note: Duo Chronicles will be performing live at Brasserie Montmartre on March 18