Open Borders: About the Music

Dig In Buddy

Tyler Hornby, a drummer based in Calgary, Alberta, hired me to write a big band arrangement of his composition, “Dig In Buddy.” When it was completed, I decided to adapt it to perform with my 10tet. Tyler tells me the title is a play on words, with two meanings. The first interpretation is something a musician might say on stage, to “egg on” and encourage his band mate to really “go for it.” The second meaning is a reference to the legendary, bootleg recordings of Buddy Rich, on the tour bus, berating his band (although musically the piece is not connected to the Buddy Rich Big Band, or the music they played).

As I listen back to this arrangement, I can hear and am reminded of ideas I adopted from Bob Brookmeyer, albeit indirectly (from interviews, conversations with his students, etc.), as I never had the opportunity to study with him. I deliberately refrained from “turning over the reigns” to the soloist(s) immediately after the initial melody statement. As Bob preached, I introduced an improvised solo only when it was the sole plausible musical event that could happen next, and all other ideas have been exhausted. Once solos were introduced, I also did my best to retain some directional control, by guiding the soloists with “solo enhancements” (a much better term than backgrounds).

Jim and Craig Brenan

The trading of musical phrases by the trombone and tenor sax was inspired by the knowing two of my close friends, Jim and Craig Brenan reside in the same Canadian province as Tyler, and they would be likely choices to play in his big band. I reveled in the idea of pitting these identical twins against one another in a battle of sorts.

The other guiding notion was keeping the drums actively interacting with the band throughout the piece, to serve as a reminder that the drummer was the composer. Occasionally, one might hear some musical references to Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, a band that had a considerable impact upon me as a young musician.

Sordid Sort of Fellow

When commissioned to write a piece for the 2009 Central Massachusetts District Jazz Band, I knew the big band would include many strong players from the award-winning band program at Foxborough High School. I wanted to challenge them a step beyond playing the blues. Writing a rhythm changes chart (a piece structurally based on George Gershwin’s “I’ve Got Rhythm”) seemed like the logical choice.

However, I found myself wanting to explore ways to depart from the usual, verbatim repetition of the ‘A sections’ within the AABA form. I did this with motivic development (thinking more along the lines of Ornette Coleman than Charlie Parker) and modulating from Eb to B major in the second ‘A section’.

Winnipeg trumpeter, Frank Burke

For the improvisations, I kept the harmony more customary, with the exception of incorporated Sonny Stitt’s challenging, chromatically descending bridge from “the Eternal Triangle.” Again you will note that I wrote a full chorus for the ensemble after the initial 32-bar melody statement, before turning control over to the trumpet soloist. There are also plenty of guiding “solo enhancements” to keep my finger, as composer/arranger, in the proverbial pie. Because this piece features trumpet so prominently, I was thinking of some of the trumpet players in my life as I wrote this. Frank Burke, was an important mentor to me while I was growing up in Winnipeg. He remains one of my closest friends. Frank openly tells stories about his connections to Winnipeg’s Chinese mofia, and if his photo isn’t next to the Webster’s dictionary entry for the word “sordid,” it should be.

Mirror of the Mind

Although recorded previously with my Creative Opportunity Workshop quartet, this 10tet version came first. It was composed in 2012, as part of a collaborative venture with visual artists Deborah Dancy and Ted Efremoff. I wanted to write something suggestive of Aaron Copeland – big and open sounding, to complement the grandiose feeling of mountains reflected on a lake, as portrayed in their projected images.

Prof. William Fielder

Listening to and studying Aaron Copeland scores got me thinking about William Fielder, a former professor of mine at Rutgers University, who was known for his highly eccentric, yet effective teaching methods. Fielder would always ask new trumpet students, “What is the trumpet?” The only answer he would accept was, “The trumpet is the mirror of the mind.”

Aptly, trumpet is one of the featured instruments on this composition; Josh Evans’ most substantial solo is saved for the end. Before this, all of the winds get brief solo statements, which are interwoven into the fabric of the piece. This is another compositional device I draw upon to avoid the repetitive, long, predictable solo forms heard in so much jazz.

Appointment In Ghana

Jackie McLean made his home in Hartford, CT from 1968 until his passing in 2006. Through his affiliations with the Artists Collective of Hartford (which he co-founded) and the University of Hartford’s Hartt School, he taught and mentored many young musicians, including my current band mates Kris Allen, Wayne Escoffery, Josh Evans and Ben Bilello.

Jackie McLean and Josh Evans (circa 2005)

I arranged, performed and recorded “Appointment In Ghana” in homage to Jackie’s recorded legacy and contributions in jazz education. It is probably my favorite of Jackie’s tunes, with runners up including the beautiful ballad, “For Hofsa” and “the Collective Expression” (from Rhythm of the Earth), and “Melody for Melonae” (from Let Freedom Ring).

From an arranger’s standpoint, there was a lot of material within the piece with which to work and develop — the most obvious being the “hits” and the alternation between solo voice and ensemble. To create three, varied solo environments, I altered the harmonies behind the bari and alto saxophone solos, giving Lauren Sevian a tricky Coltrane matrix, and Kris Allen a series of parallel, augmented major seventh chords on which to unleash some angst-filled fury.

Miles Apart

My mom and my daughter

A pared down, quartet version of this ballad was previously released on my “Mirror of the Mind” CD. This expanded rendition showcases lead trumpeter, Jeffrey Holmes as soloist.

I wrote this song on a cold, rainy day, thinking of what a drag it is that my parents and my sister’s family all live on the opposite coast of the continent, thus preventing us from seeing them more often.

Hit The Road Jack

Being asked to write an arrangement for the Westchester Jazz Orchestra, was a true honor, especially when the phone call came from one of my favorite arrangers, Mike Holober. I was told to choose from any of Ray Charles’ hit songs for an upcoming concert pairing the music of Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder. “Hit the Road, Jack” seemed like the logical choice. It was a thrill hearing it played by the WJO at the Irvington Town Hall Theatre, in Irvington, NY (on April 14, 2012). The band included many world-class, New York jazz musicians including trumpeters Marvin Stamm and John Bailey, tenor saxophonist Walt Weiskopf, and bassist Harvie S.

the Westchester Jazz Orchestra

As with other big band charts I have written, I later adapted it to for the tentet. It has been a crowd favorite in our performances and its minor blues solo form facilitates “opening things up” and allowing the band to “stretch out.”

Smoke and Mirrors

Composed programmatically, I attempted to musically depict the narrative of an individual in a prominent leadership position, who is living with a dark, well-concealed secret. His secret is so damning that if revealed, all aspects of his life would be jeopardized — his career, his family, his faith community, his friendships and his integrity.

The opening call and response between solo French horn and the ensemble portrays a group of trusting, imperceptive people following and embracing the directives of their charismatic leader.

Kris Allen, turning pages

The ensuing funky groove represents the excitement of living with a secret and “getting away with it.” Over time, the leader becomes more self-assured, bolder, and takes more risks. His confidence is bolstered by professional successes and the perception that his devotees are working well together under his guidance and direction.

But then, in a town hall meeting of sorts, individual voices from within the group start to rise; questions are posed, concern and doubt escalate, dissention is voiced and accusations are made. Despite a well-formulated defense, the secret is revealed!

Musically, an attempt was made to express the gamut of reactions and emotions experienced by both the disgraced leader, as well as those who had entrusted him – anger, hysteria, heartbreak, remorse, shame. The trumpet solo, accompanied only by piano exemplifies a prayer, uttered in a depleted state, when the perpetrator hits absolute rock bottom.

The ensemble’s reentrance at the end is a communal expression of lament. Life goes on, but the damage and pain have been considerable.

In the spirit of healthy, full disclosure, I too have a secret to reveal: the melody of this piece is based upon a 12-tone row. Hopefully this doesn’t detract its appeal.

Catch of the Day

Commissioned and debuted by the Grant McEwan University Faculty/Alumni Big Band at MusicFest Canada, this fiery arrangement is based on Jerrold Dubyk’s original tune, “Hot ‘n Ready,” from his CD, “The Maverick.” I aimed to write something that sizzled from beginning to end. My recipe included solo space for tenor sax, bari sax and trumpet, blended with zesty tidbits of mixed-meter. The blues-tinged lines gave the band something meaty to sink their teeth into. Bon appétit!


Blame It On My Youth

You’ve been there; we’ve all been there — that time you innocently and vulnerably gave someone your heart, only to find your love unrequited. The lyrics to this 1934 chestnut could make even the most hardened amongst us feel a little melancholy. They sure don’t write songs like they used to.

Dolphy Dance

There’s quite a story behind the making of “Dolphy Dance.” To raise funds to complete my last CD, I offered an online, Kickstarter incentive to commission a song for a special occasion. A friend of mine bought it, and requested a tune to surprise his wife, Donna on their anniversary. The problem was, she hated jazz! Fortunately, she did like Salsa, and I thought that with some study, I could create something to her liking. I completed the piece on time, but didn’t have a gig on their anniversary date, to perform it for them. I convinced some musician friends to let me sabotage their gig by showing up, chart in hand, and have them sight-read it publicly. It went off without a hitch, and my friend’s marriage is still intact. For this occasion, the tune was titled “Donnamite,” which was her nickname during a period when she raced stock cars.

Eric Dolphy

Shortly afterwards, I rejoined the BMI Jazz Composers Workshop in New York City. I decided to further develop “Donnamite.” I wanted to retain some of its salsa elements, but to approach it more artistically. I sparked my imagination by asking myself, “What would it have sounded like if Eric Dolphy had played within a New York City salsa band?”

So, in the spirit of Dolphy, I took both the melodic and harmonic material left of center, while preserving danceable rhythms. Like a mystery novelist, I wrote the beginning of the piece, last. Presented in triple meter, this colorful prologue introduces the melodic material in a different light, before busting into a full-throttled, salsa groove.

I thought “in the know” jazz fans would smirk at the title’s sly innuendo nodding to Herbie Hancock’s composition, “Dolphin Dance.”

East of the Sun (bonus track on CD only)

I’ve made it known that “East of the Sun” is one of my favorite jazz standards. I learned the song initially from listening to the Kenny Barron/Stan Getz duo album, “People Time.” I have performed and recorded it previously, and with each incarnation, my arrangement evolves slightly. In this version, featuring vocalist Atla DeChamplain, I think I’ve finally got it right.

Jerry Bergonzi’s 1991 BlueNote album, “Standard Gonz”

Jerry Bergonzi’s “Standard Gonz” album inspired a reharmonization spree for me, a few years back. This was one of my better attempts. I remember listing every possible chord that could match the melody in two-bar, one-bar and two-beat durations. I then drew lines, connecting chords where interesting bass line motions could be formed. The piano’s counter line glued it all together.

As a side note, sometimes I question if I “missed my calling” by not becoming a rock guitarist. Nothing has ever felt so musically satisfying as playing the Rhodes electric piano through a distortion pedal behind Kris Allen’s solo.

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