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A conversation with myself (about David Bowie & Maria Schneider)

“Hey! What’s doing?”

“Hey back! A lot of things doing actually.”

“I’m not surprised. You haven’t written anything new on the blog in 2 months.”

“Yeah. Sorry about that. But there’s still a lot of good stuff going up at JazzSpeaks! Keep your eyes peeled for a discursive interview with the amazing composer/drummer Tyshawn Sorey on Tuesday.”

“Cool. I know you’ve mentioned him before as someone doing really interesting/out-there/exciting stuff. But anyway, the thing that’s surprising me right now is that jazz seems to be having some kind of cultural moment.”

“What do you mean. We all know jazz is dead, right?”

“Haha. Very funny. What I mean is that jazz is popping up in some unexpected places, and without the influence of a neoclassicist like Wynton Marsalis. This new movie Whiplash about an aspiring jazz drummer and the relationship with this tyrannical teacher has gotten huge raves. And apparently another highly anticipated movie, Birdman, with Michael Keaton as a washed up action star trying to revitalize his career with a Broadway show, has a score that’s just some jazz drummer playing beats.”

“Yeah. That drummer is Antonio Sanchez, who’s best-known for playing with guitarist Pat Metheny for the past decade. Check out this solo!”

“Yikes. Those are some chops, man!”

“Oh yeah. Beats for days.”

“Jazz is also topping the charts right now for the first time in I don’t know when with that Tony Bennett-Lady Gaga record.”

“Yeah! I checked it out and though it’s very old-school traditional, it’s well done. Gaga knows this material, and though there are sometimes she goes too big and milks phrases unnecessarily, she doesn’t feel out of place. And the arrangements are all solid and the band is on point. I won’t complain if a lot of people want to buy it! I’d be interested in a Gaga solo effort though where she writes old-school-sounding material and tours with a big band.”

“That would be interesting to say the least. And beyond that record, there’s the new Flying Lotus record that everyone’s raving about. He’s related to Coltrane somehow, right?

“His aunt is Alice Coltrane, the great pianist & composer (and John’s wife), which also means his cousin is the great contemporary saxophonist Ravi Coltrane. But he really has his own distinct personality and the musicianship to back it up. I’ve been loving this track from the new album featuring Kendrick Lamar and a blistering solo by the bassist Thundercat.”

“Wow. This is pretty insane. And now I hear that David Bowie is releasing a new single with a jazz big band?”

“Yeah! It’s this tune called ‘Sue (or in a season of crime).’ He recorded it this past summer with the Maria Schneider Orchestra, one of my favorite groups, and one whose influence on my own writing is hard to discount.”

“So is he just trying to capitalize on this Gaga-Bennett craze for pop stars singing jazz standards?”

“I wouldn’t say so. While half of Schneider’s brass section did play on that Gaga-Bennett record, she’s not a traditionalist at all. Actually, she hasn’t written anything that swings in a traditional sense in like 15-20 years. And I don’t think Schneider would do something like this just for the money. She’s actually been quite successful as jazz artists go.”

“Oh wait. I just heard the song got released today on this BBC radio show, and now it’s posted on YouTube.”

“Sweet. Let’s check it out.” Continue reading

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A conversation with myself


“Hey there! Good to see you!”

“Yeah you too! It’s been a while, hasn’t it.”

“Umm, yeah, I guess.”

“I mean I’ve been checking the site every week, but that little piece on ‘Silver Linings Playbook’ is still on top. What’s been up?”

“Well I’ve written a good deal of music.”

“Like what?”

“Oh there was a trombone quartet I wrote for my sister for Christmas. And then I wrote this music for a production of Sarah Ruhl’s play “In The Next Room” at Princeton University.”

“Hmm. That’s cool. But you really didn’t have time to blog at all?”

“Well I was in middle of grad school interviews, which  were a bit crazy. A lot of time on Megabus I’ll say.”

“But Megabus has internet access! You could’ve written at least something on those long bus rides.”

“Okay okay okay. I get it. You wish I had written something in the last 3 months. And I get that you think my excuses were lame. But I swear my real excuse is quite good.”

“Oh really then?”

“Yeah. I haven’t been able to stop listening to this new album by drummer/composer John Hollenbeck with the Frankfurt Radio Big Band and vocalists Theo Bleckmann and Kate McGarry and keyboard meister Gary Versace. Like I haven’t been so bowled over by album in over a year I think. Like since Donnacha Dennehy’s american label debut with that Dawn Upshaw song cycle, or tUnE-yArDs.”

“Oh really? It’s so good that you haven’t been able to do anything else?”

“Well outside of teaching beginning drum and piano lessons, all I’ve been doing is listening to that album. It hasn’t left my car in almost two months. For someone who gets bored with music pretty quickly, this is kind of nuts.”

“But what’s so good about it anyway? Who is this John Hollenbeck character anyway?”

“I mean he’s only like the coolest composer writing for large ensembles consisting of 5 woodwinds, 4 trombones, 4 trumpets, and a rhythm section.”

“Better than Darcy James Argue? You talk about him like a ton.”

“Well Darcy James Argue writes for 5 trumpets and no mallet percussion, so he’s like in a whole other category.”

“Oh. Whatever.”

“Anyway, Hollenbeck has this really cool compositional style where a lot of sounds from the past 50 years of both jazz and classical music get incorporated in this super groovy and organic way. Like Hollenbeck studied jazz composition with Bob Brookmeyer, who’s like the grandfather of modern large ensemble music, but he also really knows his minimalism and likes to do these hocketing things where the trombones sound like they’re bubbling up from a volcano.”

“Well that sounds pretty cool.”

“Yeah it is! And you’d like his sense of groove. He’s able to make everything feel so infectious and funky without it sounding like a particular genre.”

“Hmm. Interesting. He better not be one of those atonal guys you keep pushing on me and I still can’t get.”

“Well Hollenbeck uses all kinds of harmonies. And I think you’d even like his atonal stuff because of those grooves. But on this new album, you don’t need to worry about running into excess atonality because most of the tracks are covers of pop songs, actually.”

“Oh not another one of those jazz guys trying to be cool by covering Radiohead or Sufjan Stevens.”

“Well I can’t say the songs he picked are really associated with contemporary attitudes of being cool. He’s got not one but two songs by Jimmy Webb, which is so our parents’ vibe (the songs were performed by the likes of Glen Campbell and Judy Collins if that helps you get the picture). Then there’s this traditional American tune that most people know from ‘O Brother Where Art Thou and Queen’s ‘Bicycle Race,’ which are hardly attempts to win the Brooklyn crowd. The only vaguely ‘cool’ song on the record is Imogen Heap’s ‘Canvas’ and it’s not like her biggest hit or anything.”

“Huh. Weird. So he’s doing covers just for the sake of making good music? That’s weird.”

“Yeah. He seemed to pick the tunes for their intrinsic musicality, not pop culture associations. I have to say that all of the melodies have these amazingly strong personalities to them. Even when taken out of their traditional genre garb, you know exactly what the song is and why it’s a good song.”

“Wow that sounds impressive.”

“It really is. I still can’t believe how I can hear raiments of so many styles of music in the pieces and yet they all adhere as single statements of a singular musical personality.”

“Like what do you mean?”

“Well let’s take a look at his version of ‘I’m a Man of Constant Sorrow,’ that American old time tune. So the tune is based in traditional folk music because of the nature of the melody. But right as the tempo kicks in after this monstrous bulldozer of an opening, Hollenbeck brings in a strong jazz undercurrent to the groove. He’s been on record talking about how this one Pat Metheny track with Jack DeJohnnette on drums has really affected his sense of groove, and here is where that influence comes through big time – it even has the trademark Metheny downstrum! Then the whole thing gets super awesomely greasy,  like old-school Stax meets pyrotechnic jam band, as dueling tenor sax solos kick in over Gary Versace’s B3 organ. And of course those crazy interlocking, kinda-Reichian trombone hockets come roaring in like “Sing Sing Sing” on steroids. In the tune, Hollenbeck is speaking three distinct American musical languages at the same time. It’s like this perfect pinnacle of Americana that doesn’t leave any bit of musical history out.”

“Whoah. You must really like this album then.”

“Yeah. I told you there was much to obsess over.”

“But is everything so hard-driving? I don’t think I can handle another eleven and a half minutes of that much intensity.”

“Well let’s head back a track to ‘The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress.'”

“Oh I think I know that tune. Doesn’t one of the a capella groups at school sing it?”

“Yeah. I think a few of them do.”

“Why would this Hollenbeck fellow want to cover such a hokie tune?”

“That was my thought exactly when I saw it on the album sleeve. It’s so perfectly melodic and velvety that I find it extremely cloying in its a capella form. I had no idea what drew him to the tune. In some ways, I still don’t know why he picked it.”

“So the track’s not very good then?”

“No. It’s utterly perfect.”


“Yeah. And keeps perfect fidelity to the tune. But Hollenbeck’s such a good craftsman and creative spirit that he finds ways of giving the song a symphonic scope without being over-the-top.”


“Yeah. For me, it starts with the opening chords, played completely unadorned on piano. I’ve transcribed them here so you can see how they work. They’re literally perfect.”


“So why are they so perfect?”

“Well writing tonal music can be so tough because the western tonal system has been around for so long. It’s almost impossible to come up with a diatonic chord progression that doesn’t sound like a cliche. And somehow Hollenbeck did it. As you can see, the top line melody strongly suggests a Gb major tonality. But instead of using stock chords below the melody, Hollenbeck uses unusual root movement and leaves out thirds and puts in really dissonant intervals. There’s a minor 9th on the first chord for crying out loud! Usually minor 9ths sound like fingers on a chalkboard, not lush and beautiful and colorful. And then how he modulates around the F natural in the melody! It’s just stunning.”

“Okay, okay. These chords are cool. But they only last a minute and the piece is over 14. What happens for the rest of it?”

“Well Hollenbeck knows he has a good idea on his hands with these chords. They become the chord progression to the actual tune and the backbone on which all of the instrumental pyrotechnics that ensure rest on. That velvety and cloying melody we know gets new life when strung around these pungent and surprising chords. The harmonies are warm and inviting, yet unstable without their traditional combinations of thirds and fifths. They’re like the moon itself – seemingly warm and beautiful on the outside, but in reality a mercurial heart-breaker that can leave for new destinations unexpectedly. Hollenbeck shows what it means to be a really, really good composer here – you find one really good idea and explore all its mysteries.”

“Wow. I think you sold me on this. I gotta check this record out.”

“Sweet man. It’s such a killer. The playing of the Frankfurt Radio Big Band is impeccable and for me, Theo Bleckmann and Kate McGarry are the standout jazz vocalists of today’s scene, combining musical precision with an uncanny ability to strike at the heart of a lyric. And while Hollenbeck doesn’t lead from the kit on this record, you do get to hear him solo on a bicycle.”

“Sounds pretty wild.”

“Oh yeah it is.”

“And it sounds like you have your record of the year prize all sized up.”

“Quite possibly. But I won’t speak to soon because the other preeminent composers for large ensembles consisting of 5 woodwinds, 4 trombones, 4 or 5 trumpets, and rhythm section have albums coming out this spring. I just picked up Maria Schneider’s ‘Winter Morning Walks’ and am excited to dive into it. She’s working with a chamber orchestra this time and the impeccable soprano Dawn Upshaw, so I’m very curious to hear how her style translates to strings. And then of course that aforementioned Darcy James Argue has his “Brooklyn Babylon” project set for release next month.”

“Well keep me updated about how those ones are, will ya?”

“I think I can make time for them.”

“Good. It’s nice to have you back, man.”

“It’s nice to be back. Now what terrible jazz internet trollings have I missed?”

“Someone said something about Wayne Shorter.”

“Guess I didn’t miss much.”

“Yeah. I guess.”

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The Music Supervisor’s Playbook

I saw “Silver Linings Playbook” the other day. It’s a good, solid movie, following the basic outlines of your standard rom com, but unafraid to mix the usual sweetness with more than a bit of bitterness. The performances were very good all around – especially the feisty but never caricatured Jennifer Lawrence and the scene-stealing Chris Tucker – but what stayed with me most about the film is its sophisticated use of music, from both the original score by Danny Elfman, and pop music sources (I guess you could have seen that coming).

The movie opens with a smooth, subtle, funky number, buoyed by fat, Matt Chamberlain-esque drums and wurlitzer piano. It was sonically slick and created a complex feeling of darkness hiding just below the surface of a typical autumn Sunday in the northeast. I was convinced the music had to be by Jon Brion, as it bore his aforementioned stylistic trademarks and canny ability to create just the right ambience for a scene without overwhelming the action. I was thus very surprised when the generally goofy and bombastic Elfman’s name came up during the credits. He gets major props for showing off a sophisticated side to his musical personality that hasn’t really come out before.

But while the score was certainly effective at undergirding the emotional feel of every scene it colored, it was the use of preexisting music that pushed and pulled the movie around in unexpected ways. Like in Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom” from earlier this year, a piece of music becomes a major plot point. For “Playbook” main character Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper), it’s Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour,” his wedding song, and the song that’s playing when he finds his wife cheating on him with a history teacher at the school where they teach.¹ Every time he hears the song, whether at his psychiatrist’s office, or the local movie theater, or sometimes just in his own head, he snaps, putting his life outside the mental hospital where he spent eight months in jeopardy. As the movie chronicles Pat’s attempts to control his outbursts and his reaction to the song, “My Cherie Amour” is gradually transformed into another Stevie Wonder song – “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing.” When Pat decides to enter a dance contest with similarly troubled friend Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) in the hopes of reengaging with his estranged wife, their routine begins with this song. You can tell that Pat is getting better at dealing with his past when the two begin rehearsing with the song and Pat doesn’t even notice that it’s Stevie Wonder. [Spoiler alert] When the pair (comparatively) nail their routine in the movie’s final scene, the artist that represents Pat’s worst moments now pushes him through his greatest triumph.

Pas de Deux

While this transformation of Stevie Wonder’s music from associations with pain to ecstasy is not the subtlest use of pop music to undergird a film’s plot, you totally buy it because of how this musical plot interacts with the other songs in the film. Interspersed between renditions of “My Cherie Amour” and “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing” are songs by Led Zeppelin, 2012 breakout band Alabama Shakes, and in some especially poignant moments, Dave Brubeck (his joyous and cute “Unsquare Dance” and unimpeachably graceful rendition of “Maria” from West Side Story”). The emotional range of the music used in the film is quite staggering, approaching Wes Anderson territory. The songs pull you back and forth through varied emotional states, attempting to create the same emotional bipolarity in the viewer that the main characters experience. This emotional whiplash reaches an apotheosis in the final dance competition scene. While the other, more serious contestants dance to canned salsas and bossa novas,  Pat and Tiffany begin their routine with the  aforementioned Stevie Wonder tune, which gets  awkwardly and hilariously interrupted by the White Stripes’ “Fell in Love with a Girl.” The studio-perfect elegance of Stevie’s tune couldn’t be more contrasting with the thrashing, garage-composed White Stripes anthem. I couldn’t stop laughing with delight for the next two minutes.

And then all of that raucousness dies off,  leaving behind Brubeck’s “Maria.” Paul Desmond’s airy alto sax sucks the air right out of the room, leaving a vacuum of focus on the two dancing protagonists. When the pair nail their big move, it is not accompanied by applause and sweeping strings, just the Brubeck quartet’s cool and calm demeanor. The fact that triumph is not accompanied by musical euphoria as well shows that Pat and Tiffany have a new control over their feelings, no longer whiplashed between extreme highs and lows.

While this final dance scene may not reach the sublime Andersonian heights of a “Rushmore,” it’s crafty use of music shows how “Silver Linings Playbook” isn’t your average rom com. While the guy gets his girl in the end, the usual emotional cliches are discarded for feelings that are more honest and human. There are no straight love songs in the movie because they can’t encapsulate the dark and messy feelings the characters carry throughout the film. By using music as more than just sonic wallpaper, “Silver Linings Playbook” makes us believe in this happy ending.


1. The real Pat Solitano’s trigger song (the movie was based on his memoir) was not “My Cherie Amour,” but Kenny G’s “Songbird.” Although I find this endlessly amusing, I am glad the filmmakers changed it because I don’t think I could get over it. It’s funny how changing one song could turn the movie into an absolute farce.

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December 29, 2012 · 12:27 pm

Kids Tapping at My Glass: The wonderful, dark children’s music on “My Life is Bold”

What makes a particular book a work of children’s literature? Is it the subject matter? The writing style? The ages of the protagonists? For every “Poky Little Puppy” or “Cat in the Hat” that unquestionably seems to fit the characterization of children’s literature, there’s an “Alice in Wonderland” where the main character wanders alone through a mysterious land, meeting hookah-smoking caterpillars on the way. While most American adults believe that works of children’s literature never deal with dark and difficult issues like illness, injustice, and mortality,¹ many of the best-known works of children’s fiction do not shy away from them. Sara Crewe of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess must overcome the death of her beloved father and a descent into poverty to retain her inner goodness. Death and struggle against inner demons constantly hang over every moment of the Harry Potter series, and then there is the Hunger Games (nuff said about that one).

So what then about children’s music? While the biggest hits like Raffi’s “Baby Beluga” and that tinkling theme to “Elmo’s World” are radiant orbs of pure positive energy, there are more than a few children’s classics that probe deeper emotional territory. There’s “Day is Done,” that intimate moment of parental consoling by Peter, Paul & Mary; “Bein’ Green,” Joe Raposo’s infinitely elegant take on prejudice and identity; “Bye Bye Dodo” and “Muhheakunnuk,” Tom Chapin’s moving ballads of environmental decay. These artful songs effectively translate hard emotional truths into a direct language for children to understand, without whitewashing those issues’ inherent complexities.

However, these childrens’ songs don’t reach the depth, darkness, and beauty of the songs on “My Life is Bold,” a benefit compilation for North Carolina’s Arts for Life organization. Arts for Life works in various North Carolina hospitals, teaching art, music, and writing to seriously ill children. All of the lyrics on the album were written by children in the Arts for Life program (all between the ages of 6 and 19), many of the lyrics dealing head-on with the struggles of illness (this is probably the first kid’s album where the word chemo is used not once but twice). These lyrics were then set to music by the jazz/folk/whateveryounameit singer-songwriter Becca Stevens, her father William, her brother Bill, and many of their musical friends in New York and North Carolina. While one might expect such a combination of richly-crafted, pro-quality music and honest, student-honed words to be woefully uneven, the songs are surprisingly cohesive and expressively potent.

Importantly, all of the singers and songwriters on the album treat the lyrical material extremely seriously. While at first it may sound peculiar to hear singer Rebecca Martin croon about Lego Bionicles in her rusted alto on “Michael’s Mind,” she delivers the lines with total conviction, making more poignant lines like “It’s gonna end up in chaos and headaches. That’s what I feel like sometimes,” drop with the weight of an anvil. The sincerity and directness of the lyrics also helps some of the jazz composers on this album temper their penchant for virtuosic complexity in exchange for a new kind of expressivity. Pianist Aaron Parks leaves his prodigious chops at home on “Who am I…?”, instead letting the young author’s similes float unencumbered for the listener to observe from all sides.

While the young writers’ reflections on their own difficulties make for an emotionally searing experience throughout, there are a few spine-tingling moments when the lyrical directness is paired with an uncommon poetic grace. In Becca Stevens’ adaptation of “Trapped Orca in an Aquarium,” the young lyricist named Michael describes his experience of being in the hospital as a wild orca living in captivity, “with kids tapping at my glass.” With the skill of a much more experienced writer, Michael is able to transport the listener to his hospital room, giving the listener an indelible feeling of the uncertainty and pain he faces each day. Armed with just her guitar and a few vocal overdubs, Stevens captures the intensity of the lyrics in her whirlwind performance.

While “My Life is Bold” has the most serious of subject matters, it is by no means a downer of an album. All of the songs are suffused with the hope of recovery, and the power that great music has in soothing even the most scarred souls. “My Life is Bold” is an ideal work of children’s art in that it does not shield children from the pain of life, but allows them to confront it in their own way and learn how to overcome it.

You can buy “Arts for Life: My Life is Bold” at reputable music retailers and directly from Arts for Life at the link below. All proceeds go to the organization.


1. This came from some reputable survey presented by Professor William Gleason on the first day of his class on children’s literature at Princeton University this past February, but due to the illegibility of my notes from that day, I can’t be a good academic writer and tell you exactly what it is. But believe me, I promise it’s legit.

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Kevin Sun is a beast of a saxophonist and an old friend. He also keeps a blog, one with a much cooler logo than mine. If you head on over there, you can check out some jazz/classical crossover favorites of mine.

Happy reading, and more importantly, happy listening.

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