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

Improvisation Workshop!

The illustrious young saxophonist Kevin Sun (he of the great blog “A Horizontal Search”) and I are giving an improvisation workshop at Montgomery High School in Skillman, NJ this Thursday afternoon at 5:30 PM. It’s geared toward members of the high school’s jazz program, but any interested musicians are welcome to come! We’ll be attempting to take the fright and mystery out of improvisation, a subject that usually takes a back seat in school big band rehearsals to issues of rhythmic interpretation, blend, balance, all that stuff. Whether you’re an experienced improviser or a someone who’s new to jazz, you’ll be sure to get some great stuff out of it.

Check out the Facebook event listing at here! And to get you thinking about the process of improvisation in the mean time, check out these 10 illuminating thoughts about improvising from drumming/composing/improvising master Bobby Previte.

ImageYay improv!




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Tragedy, Grief, and Music

I don’t think I need to use space here to update you on the news coming out of Newtown, Connecticut today. The mass shooting at an elementary school there is deeply saddening, whether one has children of his or her own or not. I was listening to NPR’s special coverage earlier this afternoon and heard reporters holding back sobs when talking about the latest updates. These are the kinds of events that scar – the one’s where even highly trained reporters are pulled into the trauma in very personal ways.

As one might expect from me, I’ve been trying to figure out what piece of music to listen to, as a memorializing act of catharsis. There are the old standards like Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” and Brahms’ “German Requiem.” Then there’s John Adams’ “On the Transmigration of Souls” and Steve Reich’s “WTC 9/11,” written in memorial of another great modern American tragedy, yet hold emotional truths that can speak to this one as well. Or maybe I should go into the pop realm for something off Wilco’s “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” or Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising.”

However, what seems to sear me (and probably most people too) about this tragedy is that it happened to little kids. The victims here are not just those killed, but their forever-traumatized classmates as well. The picture of two children in the woods by the school, shielding their faces from the tragedy, has gone viral, an instant symbol of a collective loss of innocence. This has sent me looking for music that is about children or performed by children, music that captures both the despair one feels when faced with tragedy, and the accompanying loss of innocence of children that witness it.

The first piece that fits the moment for me is David Lang’s haunting “Little Match Girl Passion.” In the piece, four singers weave together the tale of Hans Christian Andersen’s impoverished little match girl and the passion of Jesus (as told by J.S. Bach). In its stark simplicity, rife with piercingly soft minor sonorities, the piece articulates how we adults feel when witnessing the suffering of an innocent child.

This next piece for the moment is quite as starkly sad as Lang’s “Passion,” but still deals with loss and is written to heard and performed by children. It is Benjamin Britten’s “Cuckoo Song,” used to devastating effect in Wes Anderson’s film “Moonrise Kingdom.” It is a quite simple and tonal piece, ambiguously floating between major and minor. However, what really gets me about it is the subtle despair of its lyrics – the beloved cuckoo bird goes from singing in the spring to leaving when autumn approaches. The industrial-strength melody just sears the nerves off when it reaches its peak on “away.”

After listening to these two pieces and searching for another, I came across a recording of my own piece, “Spring and Fall: to a Young Child.” It too deals with a child’s loss of innocence. In Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, the speaker observes a child crying at the sight of falling leaves, realizing that through this observation, the child is confront her own mortality. The piece was not intended to memorialize a specific moment or tragedy. It was just that I found the poem quite moving and peculiarly musical. In my original program note for the piece, I talk more about children’s literature like the Velveteen Rabbit and Toy Story 3 than any specific moment in my life or another’s. It’s a small piece about a small, nearly universalizable moment. But just as the two previous pieces will be forever altered in my mind because of their associations with the events of today, perhaps my piece could take on a new meaning as well.

Either way, I hope you find some solace in music on this difficult day and would gladly take recommendations of what to listen to next.

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We interrupt this program for a Muppet News Flash

Muppet News Flash

We interrupt the scheduled programming on this blog to bring some peculiar analysis of news of national importance.

Last night I introduced my girlfriend to my holiday tradition of watching “The Muppet Christmas Carol” (don’t worry, I’ll be getting to her tradition of watching the the Hepburn/Tracy film “Desk Set” soon enough).  While the film has all the classic Muppet traits of zany physical comedy, gloriously earnest songs that can even melt the hearts of the scroogiest among us, and oh-so-much breaking of the fourth wall, it has some surprisingly dark moments (perhaps due to the fact that it was the first Muppet film done without creator Jim Henson and puppeteer/voice master Richard Hunt).

The film’s underlying darkness hits very early on in the offices of Scrooge and Marley, a London financial institution who seems to deal with foreclosures like its modern American counterpart, Bank of America (or Wells Fargo, or Citi Bank, or well… you get the picture). As CEO/CFO Ebenezer Scrooge (a fantastic Michael Caine who never phones it in) sits in his office, he is approached by his legion of bookkeepers and top clerk Bob Cratchit, I mean Kermit the Frog, about adding more coal to the fire to keep the office a little warmer for working (“Our pens have turn to inksicles!” notes one of the rattily- attired bookkeepers).


“The bookkeepers were wondering if they could put some more coal on the fire.”

Scrooge deals with that request in a manner that is both a bit heartbreaking, and all too relatable to the economic times in which we live. With a piercing gaze shooting lasers of fury, Scrooge asks how it would feel to spend these cold months, “UNEMPLOYED!?” In typical muppets fashion, the bookkeepers suddenly sing and dance a calypso for their boss to show how very warm they feel.



While this is a pretty small moment in a movie more notable for hearing Michael Caine sing, it felt oddly prescient for our time of economic malaise and rollbacks on organized labor. While today’s bosses may not deal with employees in so brusque a manner as Mr. Scrooge, the threat of prolonged unemployment has been very effective at increasing worker productivity while decreasing real wages. As the US economy spiraled in 2008 and 2009, the accompanying decrease in consumer demand made companies of all sizes attempt to make more capital with less labor by laying off staff and increasing hours for remaining employees (though not necessarily giving appropriate wage increases as well). If employees complained about the increased stresses of work, employers had a very strong bargaining chip – a bad job is better than no job at all, isn’t it? Especially when you may be out of work for months or even years at this rate…

This idea of a bad job being better than no job at all has become an assumption undergirding national policy debates about capital and labor. Yesterday, Michigan’s legislature passed a “right to work” law, instituting that any potential employee cannot be forced to pay union dues as a condition of employment, even if a union does bargain collectively for that employee. The rationale for the law is that it makes a Michigan a more attractive place for businesses to work in – they can come in and create jobs without having to deal with those pesky unions. When an economy is in a depressed state, so the thought goes, excessive unionization can keep the economy from growing because businesses aren’t investing to create jobs, as excessive union wages cut into potential profit margins.

These assumptions come from a supply side view of economics, one that believes that once capital is free to move uninhibitedly, then the economy grows for everyone. In this view, corporations of benevolent heroes, “creating jobs”  for the good ol’ average American to take. However, as shown by the (lack of) efficacy of supply side economic policies like the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 (which didn’t stimulate economic growth as proposed), a supply side view of economics is incomplete at best. Indeed, a demand side model explains better how in the US economy today, companies are sitting on large amounts of capital, but are not investing it. In a depressed economy when people are not spending enough on products from cars to electronics to home appliances and beyond, it does not make sense for companies to open up new factories or stores because the opportunity costs of these new business outlets are not high enough to justify the investment. In a depressed economy, over-worked and under-payed employees (like Scrooge’s bookkeepers) don’t have the disposable income to pay for the larger house or new coal-burning stove, a cycle which further depresses the economy. In order for an economy to grow for all people, not just holders of capital (like Mr. Scrooge), ordinary workers must have high-enough wages to pay for more than just necessities, thus increasing demand for products of all kinds, a demand that justifies new corporate investment.

With this view of economics, Michigan’s “right to work” law will not create the benefits that it proposes. It will allow employers to act like Mr. Scrooge, using the lack of unionization as a way to increase productivity without increasing pay or benefits (like appropriated heated workspaces). It will then prevent these workers from buying as many products, especially luxury consumer items, causing stores and movie theaters and the like to close, increasing unemployment, and decreasing the potential for corporate investment. Labor and capital are not antagonists in economic growth, but rather partners.

Charles Dickens’ Christmas fable, whether in Muppet form or Bill Murray form or McCarter Theater form, is not just a heartwarming tale of redemption through generosity. It is a story that continues to shed light on whatever present in which it finds itself. The bookkeepers and clerks of Scrooge and Marley may just be bit players in a magic fantasy, but they illuminate real issues faced by our very friends and neighbors.

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For Elliott Carter

It has been reported by the BBC, among others, that American composer Eliott Carter died today, just a month shy of his 104th birthday. He wrote a huge variety of music, from large orchestral works, to vocal music, to real classics of the modern chamber music repertoire. While in some ways he was a quintessential American modernist, his music had a liveliness that exploded out of its hard edges.

Back in the fall of 2008, I saw a New York Philharmonic concert that was part of a series celebrating composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein’s 90th birthday, who had died 18 years earlier. The concert not only featured Bernstein’s 1st Symphony, but also works by other American composers including Copland, Christopher Rouse, and Carter. The real kicker was that Carter himself was there and was interviewed beforehand, on the eve of his 100th birthday, still writing music.

For me, Carter was an important gateway drug into a lot of mid-20th century American classical music, mostly because he was the only composer to ever write serious and good solos for timpani. Just about every percussionist will learn Carter’s “March” from that set at some point in their lives. It’s a show-stopper, complete with stick flips, and very clearly demonstrates Carter’s sophisticated use of metric modulation – changing tempos based on different mathematical proportions of the original tempo. I learned the piece for a 20th century chamber music class at Princeton, and now present my own humble recording here. This is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what Carter’s music is all about. Take a look through twitter to see what other favorite pieces people are posting just to get a sense of how prolific he was.

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Toward a Tradition of Hersch and Sondheim

Hearing pianist Fred Hersch play solo is a rare kind of experience, one where you get of both warm familiarity and uncharted adventure. He never seems to have an off-night, always pushing well-worn songs (whether standards or originals) in new directions. Tonight, on stage at Raritan Valley Community College, “Dream of Monk” featured some scurrying, vaguely tonal micro-counterpoint. “Stuttering,” a piece normally reserved for trio gigs, got an exploratory treatment that stretched the form in some uncharacteristic ways.

As someone who’s lived in both the jazz and musical theater worlds (see this blog’s inaugural post), I’ve found Hersch to be a great way to get theater people to listen to and enjoy jazz (just ask my girlfriend). To my ear, he shares both a harmonic and melodic sense with Stephen Sondheim. The vamp that undergirds Hersch’s tune “Echoes” even bares a strong resemblance to the vamp at the beginning of Sondheim’s “Move On” from Sunday in the Park with George. I’ve always pondered about Sondheim’s potential influence on Hersch. I asked former Hersch student Ethan Iverson of The Bad Plus about it, and he said they never spoke about Sondheim, but that it could possibly be an influence.

So after the show tonight, I just had to ask: “What kind of impact has Sondheim had on your work, Fred?”

“Zippo,” he curtly replied, then adding that he’s probably the only gay American musician of his age that hasn’t dealt with Sondheim in any serious way, outside of seeing a couple of  his plays.

However, the similarities are too strong to be simply coincidental. It’s most likely that it comes from both shared musical reference points and a shared aesthetic that prizes harmonic ingenuity and pure lyricism.

On the shared reference points side of things, Hersch and Sondheim are both steeped in the American songbook tradition. Hersch is regarded as one of the most faithful interpreters of songbook repertoire and vocal accompanists (just see his duo album with vocalist Jay Clayton, “Beautiful Love”). Sondheim learned that tradition from one of its sources – lyricist Oscar Hammerstein – and explored it deeply in his songs for Follies. In addition, to this intimate knowledge of the American songbook, both musicians are well-versed in the classical repertoire, especially of music from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Hersch’s tune “Pastorale” is a response to the piano music of Robert Schumann, and Romantic harmonies crop up in many other tunes as well – tunes that would feel right at home alongside those from Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music.”

But more important than these shared reference points are Hersch and Sondheim’s shared love of memorable melody. While talking to Hersch after the show, he mentioned how the art of songwriting has mostly fallen out of jazz. For him, jazz compositions are many times exercises in being slicker than the next guy, only having fragments of melody that can’t actually stick in one’s head. While he has a true jazz master’s command of extended harmonies, Hersch never explores complex harmonic terrain without being able to thread a good melody through it. Though Sondheim originally sought the composer Milton Babbit as a teacher to help him write serious atonal music, Babbit told Sondheim not to abandon his gift for melody, urging Sondheim to explore the many possibilities afforded to him by traditional tonal systems. Sondheim clearly learned a lot about how to construct rich, piquant harmonies from his lessons in classical composition, but like Hersch, never sacrificed melody to make a more interesting chord progression.

For me, the work of both Hersch and Sondheim suggest their own tradition of American, urban, piano-based art song. Today, most pop and jazz songwriters come more from a guitar tradition, derived from blues, rock, and traditional folk – more rural genres of music. Jazz musicians in particular that write on piano are more prone to think like composers than songwriters, prizing complexity over singable melodies. The Hersch-Sondheim tradition comes out of the era in which classically-trained, urban dwellers were the creative forces behind popular music – the Broadway composers, Tin Pan Alley songsmiths, and famous writing teams like Lieber and Stoller. The artification¹ of this tradition may not have begun with Leonard Bernstein in works like “On the Town” and “West Side Story,” but these works certainly opened the doors that Sondheim and Hersch went through, showing that you could create piano-based music that was both musically rich and appealing to an average, non-musician. Nowadays, this tradition is mostly relegated to the musical theater world (think of Jason Robert Brown or Ricky Ian Gordon), but there are some practitioners elsewhere (I would definitely put Eric Whitacre in this category, and would make a case for Missy Mazzoli’s Victoire as well).

Because of how this tradition is relatively small, there are still many routes to explore within it. Hersch has added a sense of rhythmic playfulness and unpredictability to the style, especially through his work with drummers like Tom Rainey and Nasheet Waits. I would love to see a musical theater writer run with this idea, creating a show with more rhythmic drive than your typical Sondheim work, but not resorting to rock opera kitsch. Hersch, like Sondheim, has opened many musical doors, but not many have followed him through them. Treasures await those who will.

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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. http://keepsake.aflnc.org/product/my-life-is-bold-cd


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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A Musical Soul Search – 6 Songs of Me

Last week, London’s Guardian newspaper created a new web project called “6 Songs of Me,” encouraging participants to write their musical memoir in six songs in specific categories. The good folks at NPR Music picked up the story and in the last week it’s become a bit of a fad. Like the 6-word memoirs popularized by Smith Magazine several years ago, these 6-song bios can be both revealing and beguiling – like one person’s list included “The Lonely Goatherd” from The Sound of Music, choral music by Eric Whitacre, and a Radiohead finale (I’ll let you figure out what that all means). In the spirit of good fun, I’ve added my own list to this Dewar’s Profile-esque project here.

1. First song I ever bought: “All For You” – Sister Hazel

Does it count if it was bought with money from my Grandma? I’m still considering it a major moment because it was the first time I picked out a CD myself. Up until that point, every song I wanted was something my older brother already had. Here’s to the first step in asserting my musical independence. I got it at the long-defunct Encore Books in the Princeton Shopping Center. It definitely has a Counting Crows-ish vibe, but nearly as annoying. That point when all the instruments drop out at the bridge is pretty cool too.

2. Song that always gets me dancing: “Superstition” – Stevie Wonder

I mean, come on. This is a no brainer. There has never been a fatter groove ever committed to tape.¹ When I represented Barack Obama in a school-wide mock presidential debate in high school, I walked into the auditorium to this. It’s got swag to last another couple millenia.

3. Song that reminds me of childhood: “One Week” – Barenaked Ladies

I was so into this song in elementary school. I even lip-synched it in front of my 3rd grade class. I apparently was convincing enough that they thought I knew all of the words (confession: I still don’t). Listening back to it now, I’m very impressed by the slick production on it, and the fact that the Barenaked Ladies had not one but two really good distinctive singers. It’s not all that much of a stretch that they were on the same record label as Wilco at that time.²

4. Perfect love song (tie): “I Carry Your Heart With Me” – Kate McGarry & “The Hazards of Love 4 (The Drowned)” – The Decemberists

I Carry Your Heart

The first is a poem by e.e. cummings that expresses quite possibly the most beautiful sentiment a human being can have for another, set with swirling counterpoint reminiscent of Marc Chagalls floating, intertwined lovers. The second may be a bit of a downer (the lovers drown after all), but giving up one’s life for another is quite possibly the most beautiful thing a human being can do for another.

5. Song played at my funeral: “Requiem – Introitus” – Manuel Cardoso

The opening gambit of this Portuguese, Renaissance-era requiem is quite possibly the most gorgeous 23 seconds of music ever composed.

6. Song that makes me, well, me – “A Blessing” – John Hollenbeck

A sentiment that I try to take with me every day. To whom much is given, much is expected. Pay it forward.

But doing this list is only so much fun alone. So I have also gathered my sister’s list.

1. First song bought: “See You Again” – Miley Cyrus

Can’t say it’s any worse than “All for You”

2. Dancing song: “Gangsta” – tUnE-yArDs

She’s way too cool for me.

3. Song of childhood: “Katie” – Tom Paxton

A staple of long car rides.

4. Perfect love song: “You Are Mine” – David Haas

Who says that these gotta be eros songs. She goes all agape here.

5. Song at funeral: “In My Life” – The Beatles

No argument. Actually, can I add that to my funeral set list too?

6. Song that makes her, her: “Powerhouse” – Raymond Scott, as performed by Don Byron

The inside of a young person’s brain, instrumental-fied.


1. Noted musical psychologist Daniel Levitin said this is true, so it is. Scientifically.

2. Okay. Maybe it is.

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In Defense of “Crossover”

After posting that last blog post about 5 really cool jazz-classical hybrid albums, there was a little twitter dustup about the use of the term “crossover.” Upon seeing the post, composer and co-founder of New Amersterdam Records Judd Greenstein asked whether jazz people were ok with the term “crossover,” adding that he only uses the term in basketball. Guitarist Joel Harrison (he of the Paul Motian compositions with strings album) seemed to chafe at that characterization as well, adding his own quip about crossing the street without getting hit by a “speeding style.” The dustup seemed to die pretty quickly though, and I didn’t feel the need to open up a bigger conversation about the term.

However, after sitting in on a talk with composer and other co-founder of New Amsterdam Records Sarah Kirkland Snider, the debate about the term resurfaced in my mind. In her insightful presentation, Snider talked about her development as a composer and how one learns to bring all of one’s disparate musical influences to bare. It was fascinating to see how her own music gradually expanded its stylistic reach, culminating in her stunning song cycle “Penelope,” (an album that sits at the top of my iTunes most played list. Also, Ted Poor is a monster). She characterized the New Amsterdam label as a community where composers are free to present music with a full range of influences, but without a sense of “crossover.”

And the bells started going off in my head.

It seems that for Snider, Greenstein, and a lot of the composers and performers in their circles, “crossover” has become a loaded term, similar to how “jazz” has become a loaded term to “BAM” proponents like trumpeter Nicholas Payton. String player/vocalist/composer Caleb Burhans lends some insight into why many contemporary classical artists are uncomfortable with the term “crossover,” saying that, “About ten years ago, we’d probably be called ‘crossover,’ but that means that we’re actually crossing over from something, and I feel that most composers that I’m working with aren’t actually crossing anywhere–they’re just staying true to what they do.” From this, we can gather that reason number 1 that “crossover” is a disliked term because it suggests a musical process that is self-conscious and therefore in some way dishonest, rather than the intense sincerity that Snider, Greenstein, and others prize.

I feel another reason why the term can seem so loaded to many musicians is what kind of music is famously characterized as crossover. You hear “crossover” thrown around with relatively silly acts like the violinist Nigel Kennedy or the Spice-Girls-cum-String-Quartet “Bond,” or even less silly projects like Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble. Since the music of New Amsterdam’s community of composers and performers sounds nothing like these groups and because many groups of this stereotypical “crossover” ilk don’t have a reputation for seriousness, it is logical that they would try to dissociate themselves from the word.

Despite these perfectly acceptable arguments for keeping the term at arms-length, I find that “crossover” can still be a useful descriptor when used in context (making it clear that it’s not just a shorthand for Nigel Kennedy’s music) and that the quest to discourage its usage is problematic.

First, let’s begin with how crossover can be a useful term. Every musician belongs to many different communities. Let’s use guitarist Bryce Dessner for the purposes of this thought experiment. Dessner is part of the Brooklyn Indie Rock community through his band The National and collaborations with singers like Antony Hegarty. He’s also part of the Bang on a Can and New Amsterdam communities, stemming from the communities he was a part of while a student at the Yale School of Music. While all of his musical ideas come from a singular mind, these ideas find their expression in different ways. Some of these expressions work well on a big stage in front of a large, loud crowd. Some work well in a small concert hall with a quiet audience. Some expressions work well in both contexts – they cross over the spacial and social divides associated with different kinds of music. The way that many pieces by Greenstein, Snider, and their peers work in different contexts can be described as crossover.

This inability to be confined by a single performance context is the kind of crossover I was talking about in my previous piece. What made the five groups good examples of jazz/classical crossover projects is how they can work equally well in a more casual club setting (I’ve seen the Kneebody and Joel Harrison projects in this way) or in a more formal concert setting. They’re all examples of music that can stand on its own as a solitary listening experience, or interact with its environment in real time. To be clear, it’s the music that’s crossing over contextual divides, rather than the musicians crossing over arbitrary genre boundaries. I think this is an important distinction that helps divorce “crossover” from its negative associations.

But even if crossover is still an imperfect descriptor, attempting to squash it out can backfire. At its best, the quest to rid contemporary classical music writing of “crossover” is a way for musicians to take control of how their music is described, better mediating the interaction with new listeners. At its worst, it comes off as terribly smug, suggesting that the user of the word doesn’t really know what he or she is listening to. For a group of musicians that has pushed back against the modernist view of musician/listener relations, the New Amsterdam-ites ironically sound like latter day Babbitts – because you call it “crossover” you must not be able to understand the music. I feel that pieces like Greenstein’s “Change” and Snider’s “Penelope” are modern classics, and inspirations for my own writing. Calling it “crossover” or “alt/indie-classical” isn’t going to sap the pieces of their intrinsic strength and beauty.

Describing music is a terribly imperfect science and in a sense, all genre names are bad because they focus on homogenous rather than unique aspects of a piece of music. The only really effective means of classifying one’s own music is to come up with a smart, terse, descriptive phrase – Darcy James Argue’s “steampunk big band” is a prime example. These names, whether artist-sanctioned or not, are just convenient, shorthand ways of telling someone about a piece of music you liked. If someone uses “crossover” or “jazzy” or any other potentially loaded word in the name of sharing good music, I don’t see anything wrong with it.

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