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.


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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Horizontal Travels

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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Isn’t it Rich – 5 things jazz folk would love about Sondheim

For the past 3 weeks, I’ve had “Stephen Sondheim on the brain, in the ears, and in the hands.”¹ No, it’s not because I’ve grown sick of all that jazz² in my music library. I’m currently music directing a summer stock production of Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” in Princeton, New Jersey. For these 3 weeks, just about every waking hour has been filled with triple-time tunes about missed connections, gender stereotypes, and a whole lot of sexual repression. As I am someone who has never been able to sit through an episode of “Glee,” you might expect that music directing a piece of musical theater would drive me mad. But that has fortunately not been the case.

In fact, as a real Sondheim n00b³, the experience has been eye-opening from a musical standpoint. Though Sondheim is best known for his endlessly witty and psychologically probing lyrics, I was struck at how gorgeous and well-crafted the music in “A Little Night Music” is. It’s a pastiche musical – a romp through popular styles of late Victorian Europe – but hardly feels like a cheap imitation of the great European Romantics (no pints of Brahms-Lite here). In fact, the more I played the music in rehearsal, the jazzier it sounded. I mean there’s no swing or anything, but the way that Sondheim constructs each tune in terms of harmony, melody, and form bears striking similarities to some of the best jazz tunesmiths of the modern era. Although Sondheim’s work has gone largely unexplored by jazz musicians (except for “Send in the Clowns” of course), there’s quite a bit for jazz people to eat up, if they listen carefully.

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