Reflections and highlights from 2012

This is a really long post (it took me 3 months to finish it), but I’ve been reflecting on the past year, and I wanted to share some of my thoughts, as well as the highlights:

JANUARY: St Bart’s and Mobro mixing
It’s always fun to go St Bart’s for the St Bart’s Music Festival. Who wouldn’t want to leave cold and dreary NYC to go to the Carribean in January? We had a particularly memorable show last year with Aaron Goldberg, Reuben Rogers, and Jason Marsalis. Our set mostly consisted of tunes from “It’s You I Like”, which we had just recently recorded, and I remember feeling prepared, which was a strange feeling for me (usually I’m changing something or writing something up until the last minute for shows and recordings). Evening concerts on the island are a magical experience: people in flowing light-colored clothing crowd into the little Anglican church in Gustavia, and the feeling is expectant but relaxed, unhurried. Throughout the show a soft breeze blows through the open windows, and tree frogs sing during the quiet moments.

Pete Rende and I spent 9 (yes, nine) days mixing MOBRO in January. We probably could’ve spent 19. As you may know by now, MOBRO is my third collaboration with playwright Andy Bragen, and it features 4 singers, trumpet, french horn, 2 trombones, 2 guitars, bass and drums (as well as saxophone here and there). We had recorded it the previous month in one day at Water Music, after a 4-night run at the Jazz Gallery (they commissioned the piece in April 2011). One day in the studio isn’t ideal for a project of this magnitude, but it was our best chance for a studio documentation of the piece, and so we went for it. The piece is narrative and it follows, in our own abstract way, the journey of the Mobro 4000. Conceived of in 12 sections with lots of interludes, it was running about 90 minutes live, so our strategy was to get sounds, get comfortable in the studio, and then play the whole thing twice with a break. Mixing was challenging, but I’m still awestruck to think of what we accomplished in that one day. I’m determined to get it released in 2013.

FEBRUARY: Miguel Zenon big band at Montclair State, Quito with Ignacio Berroa
Miguel Zenon is one of my favorite musicians on the planet, so I was thrilled to get the chance to play in his big band, which debuted his multimedia piece, “Puerto Rico Nació en Mi: Tales From the Diaspora” at Montclair State University in February. Miguel has a staggering ability to create music of tremendous rhythmic complexity and mathematical coherence that still sounds like folk music: singing and dancing. His music requires some deciphering and some decoding to play (for me at least), but the whole process is tremendously satisfying; in spite of its thorniness, everything always sounds and feels intuitive and inevitable.

For the last few years I’ve been playing on and off with Ignacio Berroa‘s group, and we traveled to Quito, Ecuador to play the festival there last February. As is often the case when traveling somewhere far away for one gig, we didn’t really have enough time to feel out where we were, but we played in a beautiful theater there, and I tried to adjust to the altitude (my reeds always feel about a half size too hard, and I feel like I can’t get any sound when playing at high altitudes). In addition to being a legendary beyond-category drummer, famous for playing with Dizzy Gillespie’s groups among others, Ignacio gives a really great clinic: sort of a clave-centered journey through American history and music that connects African and European sensibilities, swing, rock, etc. He plays, claps, conducts, and sings throughout, and the whole presentation feels very common sense, direct, and mystical at the same time, kind of like Ignacio himself.

MARCH: Kendrick Scott in Boston, Anne Mette Iversen’s “Poetry of Earth” record release, Dr. Lonnie Smith live recording
Kendrick Scott has been one of my favorite drummers since I first heard him, way back when he was still a student at Berklee College of Music. To me, it always feels like home with Kendrick, like church. The best jazz experiences and the best church experiences overlap for me: we pursue something beyond ourselves, with humility and in community, recognizing our collective failings but always in a spirit of love and generosity, and with an openness towards some spontaneous magic (or holy spirit if you’re so inclined) that can arrive from an unexpected place at an unexpected time. By the way, Kendrick is a great clinician too, and this was my first time seeing him in that role: generous, thoughtful, searching, and clear – I’m still thinking about his odd-time signature exercises (sing All The Things You Are in 5/4 while stomping half notes and clapping eight notes grouped in 5/8). Oh, and the gig was a homecoming of sorts, at Berklee, and was recorded and filmed for Josh Jackson’s the Checkout.

Although I’ve known Anne Mette Iversen since the late 90’s, I first came to appreciate the depth of her artistry when we recorded her album, “Best of the West”, which features a traditional string quartet (two violins, viola, and cello) with a jazz quartet (bass, drums, saxophone, and piano). The writing on this record still blows me away. Anne Mette is organized, thoughtful, and deeply committed to her music. Not overly needy of outside approval and at times skeptical of audiences and commerce, she’s constantly searching for her most honest expression. For her this is often at the intersection of the “classical” music of her early training as a pianist in Denmark and the “jazz” music of her later studies as a bass player here in NYC. Her latest record that navigates this territory came out last March on the BJU label (she was one of the founders), and features two singers, piano, bass, and woodwinds (I’m playing flute, clarinet, tenor saxophone, and bass clarinet). It’s a double CD featuring musical settings of poems in English and Danish and she calls it “Poetry of Earth” – watch a clip from our record release party at the Cornelia Street Cafe here.

The last week of March was kind of a dream come true – I got the chance to be a part of a live recording session with Dr. Lonnie Smith. Rehearsing with Dr. Lonnie is like trying to catch a wily mischievous ghost in a bottle. He’s a moving target, pranking you, and dancing around you all the time. The band we recorded with features drums (Jonathan Blake), guitar (Ed Cherry), and four horns (Jason Marshall, Andy Gravish, Ian Hendrickson-Smith, and me). Lonnie is a wonder – a true one-of-kind creator. He’s deeply perceptive, deeply spontaneous, and fearless about pursuing whatever the moment calls for, a musical tight rope walker. In spite of the tape rolling and 8 cameras on us the whole time we never really knew what was going to happen next.

APRIL: Double-Wide at the French Quarter Festival, Anne Mette quartet tour
OK, it’s true, Double-Wide has been a little less active over the last year – with half the band in New Orleans it’s not so easy for us to do the more informal (read: less well paid) gigs that come along, and we’re in a bit of a transitional moment as we prepare for our next album. That said, we had an awesome gig at the French Quarter Festival in New Orleans last April – this band is a great outdoor band. Even having our set interrupted at the end by a giant steamboat calliope seemed somehow fitting, somehow inevitable, perfect. The Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz sponsored our performance, and I taught master classes and clinics at Loyola and at NOCCA while I was down there. Early spring is my favorite time of the year in New Orleans – the weather is perfect and I love to get an iced coffee and walk along the streets to marvel at the beautiful architecture, attempting to better understand the city’s complex history while being periodically overtaken by the smell of ligustrum.

Anne Mette Iversen was busy last year – in addition to the “Poetry of Earth” album that I mentioned earlier, we also toured Denmark as a quartet in April (featuring Danny Grissett and Otis Brown), playing music from her latest quartet record, “Milo Songs”.

MAY: Dart Award, “It’s You I Like” is released on Criss Cross Jazz
In May, I had the unexpected honor of receiving a Dart Award for Excellence in Coverage of Trauma. Here’s how this happened: in the late summer of 2011 my friend Marianne McCune invited me to compose music for “Living 9/11”, a moving and powerful piece that she produced for WNYC for the tenth anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center. I’m so proud of Marianne for her work on this – it’s profoundly moving – and it was an honor to share in her process and to see how she works. All the members of her team received awards, and I accompanied them to the ceremony at Columbia Journalism School. “Living 9/11” and “Punched Out: The Life and Death of a Hockey Enforcer.”, by the New York Times, were the two winners in 2012, and both teams were there and spoke at length about their process.

May 15th, 2012 marked the release of my 7th album as a leader and my debut on the Criss Cross Jazz Label, “It’s You I Like.” This album features the music of one of my heroes, Fred Rogers, and juxtaposes arrangements of his songs with another of my favorite composers, Elliott Smith. It features Mike Moreno on guitar, Aaron Goldberg on piano, Matt Penman on bass, and Rodney Green on drums. I had the chance to speak at length about the album to Dan Poletta for WCPN’s Around Noon about the album – you can listen to that here.

JUNE: Alan Ferber big band recording, Brazil with Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, Brooklyn Babylon studio recording, It’s You I Like record release party at the Jazz Standard, Doug Wamble in Portland, ME
Alan Ferber is a great friend and one of my favorite musicians. He’s a giving and generous sideman with a selfless confidence and an intuitive sense of what the music calls for at any given moment. He’s a tremendous composer and bandleader, as well – his vast experience as a sideman and his sensitivity to the particulars of each instrument have made him a real musicians’ orchestrator: all of his music feels great to play for each person in the band. After years of working with his nonet, he’s finally expanded and begun to write big band music, as well – in June we recorded his debut big band project as Systems Two – it was a joy to be a part of it.

Darcy James Argue is a force of nature: equally impressive as a composer, orchestrator, bandleader, philosopher, cultural critic, internet blogger, booking agent, historian, writer, reader, and listener; he seems to be made for these times. He’s clear and articulate about his vision, and he’s fearlessly committed to pursuing his music regardless of the difficulties and various impracticalities (Darcy doesn’t perform as an instrumentalist and he’s singularly focused on the writing, arranging, conducting, and booking of the band he leads, Secret Society). While undeniably brilliant, powerful, and beautiful, Darcy’s music isn’t always “fun” for me to play. I’ve been doing some reflection on why that is, and it’s complicated: partly it’s because it toes the line of technical impossibility (for me, at least) while not quite crossing it (this is part of his genius in my opinion), so as a player in his band you’re always just barely making it, and even when you play things “right” they don’t always feel good – this is music written by an extremely rigorous composer with composer’s priorities, which can be quite different than a player’s priorities. For example, his structural and orchestrational decisions lead to strikingly original sounding music, but sometimes at the cost of causing considerable discomfort for the players in the band. This is all very intentional – he knows what is comfortable and intentionally writes in opposition to that for effect. Additionally, to play in his band requires submitting to his compositional vision which is often much more philosophically aligned with classical music than with jazz: soloing, while sometimes “free” in terms of vocabulary or language, is always within a very detailed framework and serves the larger compositional narrative, and the rhythm section interaction and “comping” is carefully managed as a part of the composition, as well. The chance for collective discovery through improvisation in his band is minimal. While our priorities can be different at times, I have tremendous respect for Darcy, and the appeal for me has always been that his music is so undeniably beautiful and so inherently challenging – I always want another chance to play it better than I did the last time (or in some cases, just to play it at all). This past June we traveled to Rio de Jainero and Sao Paulo (where everyone seemed to have agreed in advance to rename him “Darcy James”) to perform as a part of the BMW Jazz Festival. Later in the month, during three grueling days at Avatar, we recorded Darcy’s latest record, “Brooklyn Babylon”. A multi-media collaboration with artist Danijel Zezelj, it’s stunningly ambitious and structurally astounding, a triumph of vision and execution. It’s also just out on the New Amsterdam label, and you can buy it here.

In June we celebrated the release of “It’s You I Like” for two nights at The Jazz Standard in NYC. I love the Standard – the food is exceptional, the sound is extremely good (especially considering it’s in a basement), and the staff treats the musicians consistently well. I had the good fortune of having the same band from the record for the shows, which is surprisingly hard to achieve with everyone’s busy schedules. My parents were in attendance from North Carolina, making the night extra special. I even sang one of Mister Rogers simplest and sweetest tunes, “I’m Taking Care Of You”

I also had a great time in June playing with my friend and soul brother – guitarist, singer, and composer, Doug Wamble. Doug is someone I feel a deep kinship with, and I defy you to find a box to comfortably fit him into – his tastes and influences are vast and surprising. He’s also one of the funniest people I know. In addition to a gig last February at Lincoln Center’s Allen Room (that I somehow neglected to mention earlier), we also performed at the State Theater in Portland, ME last June. Deeply influenced by the septet writing of Wynton Marsalis, the piece we presented is one of Doug’s most ambitious creations, a multi-movement work called “Yoknapatawpha,” which is based on the works of one of Doug’s favorite writers, William Faulkner.

JULY: Jazz Standard with Dr. Lonnie, Veneto Jazz Workshop
July brought us back to the Jazz Standard with Dr. Lonnie Smith to celebrate his 70th birthday. For those who may not realize this, Dr. Lonnie has just recently started his own record label, Pilgrimage Records. So while we roasted and toasted him on his 70th, he was also celebrating his first release on his own label, a trio record called “The Healer”. The four horns joined over the weekend for a preview of our upcoming release, due out in the fall of 2013.

In late July I headed out to Chioggia, Italy to teach at the Veneto Jazz Workshop. The Veneto Jazz Workshop is presented in partnership with the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music, and is run by the guitarist Rory Stuart. Rory teaches the rhythm class at the New School, and has had a quiet impact on a whole generation of players in the city. I’m hoping that one of these days he’ll release the record we made many years ago featuring his compositions, and the unlikely instrumentation of guitar, saxophone, bass, and tabla. For anyone interested in attending the Veneto Jazz Workshop in July of 2013, I’ll be returning again this coming July. Chioggia feels like a run down Venice to me: there are still canals, but it’s smaller, less touristy, and kind of smells like fish and motor oil. Rusty boats that seem to have been tied up for a decade creak and sway around the perimeter of the city.

AUGUST: Double-Wide at the Newport Jazz Festival, Ubuntu record release, San Juan with Henry Cole
August was a big month for Double-Wide. We made our debut at the Newport Jazz Festival on the main stage, sharing the bill that day with Bill Frisell, Darcy James Argue, Pat Metheny, and Diane Reeves. You can watch a short video clip from our set here or listen to the whole set here. To warm up we headed down to Snug Harbor in New Orleans and then up to AS220 in Providence, RI. I love this band. We have lots of laugh-out-loud funny moments on stage, and it is the antidote to all of the more self-consciously serious projects I participate in throughout the year (including my own). Please don’t misunderstand me here. The music isn’t a joke (I acknowledge that for some serious-minded people seeing puppets on an album cover might indicate that we’re joking – we are not) and isn’t slightly dumbed down – it’s just that the intent is fun, the goal is fun, the spirit is fun: we’re aiming for uninhibited joy while maintaining the highest level of musical integrity. An aesthetic choice to embrace humor (not just fun, but humor) while maintaining high standards of musicianship and craft is uncommon in jazz today, at least as far as what I’m hearing. I’m all too aware that it’s a conceit to assume objectivity about one’s own work, but in my humble opinion it’s one of the reasons Double-Wide has such a distinctive sound (the instrumentation makes a big difference too, I’ll admit – sousaphone!)

I traveled to New Orleans at the height of hurricane season to celebrate the release of my friend Matt Lemmler‘s newest record, “UBUNTU”. Matt and I go back for many years, and he always assembles fantastic bands. His writing is lush and he improvises harmony with unfurling elegance, always seemingly unpremeditated, yet always just what’s needed to keep you hanging on every note, like magic. I love his album “Portraits of Wonder”: it’s one of the highlights of my recording career, and so I was thrilled to get the chance to work with him again. “UBUNTU” features so many great musicians associated with New Orleans, but it’s always a special treat to get to play with Brian Blade. The first gig we did this past August was actually at the Ogden Museum, and it was celebrating the music of the southern states that are featured at the Ogden. When we arrived and set up there was no sound system yet, and we needed to rehearse. Somehow Blade managed to drive the whole band while playing so quiet as to allow the singers to sing without microphones in a very live space. It made such an impression on me that I still remember it in vivid detail – only the most generous and most sensitive orchestrator could achieve something like that and still make the music groove that hard.

As it turned out, we had a string of gigs with Matt in New Orleans, but there was one day off which happened to coincide with a show in Puerto Rico with another band I play with: Henry Cole and the Afrobeat Collective. Rather than catch up on sleep, I flew to PR for this one gig, arriving just in time to get to the soundcheck. Henry’s new record with this band is called, “Roots Before Branches” (not to be confused with “Roots, Branches, and Leaves”), and is a genre-defying mixture of Afro-beat, Puerto Rican folklore, funk and R&B, jazz and Afro-Caribbean rhythmic traditions. Reading how this looks in writing, it’s hard to imagine that it could work so well, but Henry really loves and knows about all of these types of music. He really loves all of it, and somehow he brings everything together into this perfect sweet amalgam of all these influences and creates something deep and spiritual, danceable (yes, like in a club), searching and risk-taking with collective empathy (like the best jazz), and personal to his vision. Here’s a solo from one of the tunes from this gig last August – Henry put it up on his Soundcloud.

OK, so remember what I said about the height of hurricane season? When I went to the airport in PR the next morning after Henry’s gig, I discovered that all flights into Miami (where I was scheduled to transfer to a flight to New Orleans) were grounded for the whole day due to Hurricane Isaac. I scrambled and got myself a ticket on a different airline connecting through Charlotte and made it to Snug for the middle of the first set of Matt’s record release party. I breathed a sigh of relief and slept in the next day only to discover that Isaac was coming directly to New Orleans. Our clinic with Matt got canceled as the whole city shut down, and I ended up waiting it out with my friends in the St Roch area, staying in New Orleans for four extra days with no power. I can now tell you from experience – even a category 1 hurricane is a very scary thing.

SEPTEMBER: Edward Simon Venezuela Suite recording, Pedro Giraudo, Emilio Solla and Sean Smith
Edward Simon is someone I’ve admired for a long time. I first became aware of him when he was playing with Terence Blanchard’s group, and then I spent a lot of time with his self-titled album, “Edward Simon”. Mark Turner, another hero of mine, is also transcendent on that record, and so it was a special privilege to be invited to record with Edward, Mark, and many others for Edward’s upcoming release on Sunnyside. I played only bass clarinet on this project which, although it happens rarely, is beginning to happen more and more.

I also made my debut with bassist and composer Pedro Giraudo this past September. Pedro had just expanded his writing to a full big band after many years of playing with a smaller 12-piece group. There’s so much forward propulsion in his writing; you almost feel like you have to lean forward in your seat the whole time. How does he do this? Well, the short answer is rhythm. He writes in circular phrases that often end a little sooner than you think they will, interrupted and overtaken by other instruments in the band (his orchestrations feature lots of quick hand-offs between sections and solists), but rather than feeling jagged or interrupted, the phrasing feels natural, almost circular. Also many of his grooves have pulse choices – there’s a 5/8 tune that suggests 5/4 quite often, his 6/8 often overlaps with 3/4, he has a 9/8 tune where the harmonic rhythm corresponds with 4/8 groupings within the 9/8 pulse and he even has 5/8 bars within a 6/8 groove where the measures are meant to be equivalent. If all this sounds technical, it is, but the end result is this wonderful feeling of being on a roller coaster or a waterslide, where the forward motion propels you at every turn.

I also want to take a moment here to acknowledge two bands that I’ve been working with with some regularity over the last few years, something that I’ve very grateful for as it’s quite rare in today’s world. These are the bands of Emilio Solla and Sean Smith. Emilio is an Argentinian composer and piano player who spent many formative years in Barcelona. He writes extremely beautiful music that’s difficult to characterize, but it’s clearly inspired by his love of classical music, tango, and jazz. He has multiple projects, but the band I’ve been playing in is called Emilio Solla Y La Inestable De Brooklyn, and it features the unusual instrumentation of piano, bass, drums, accordion, violin, two doubling saxophonists (I’m playing tenor saxophone, flute, and bass clarinet), trumpet and trombone. The orchestrations are lush, the melodies are haunting, and the rhythms are infectious. We’re scheduled to record this project in July of 2013.

I’ve been playing with bassist and composer Sean Smith for nearly a decade. Sean writes beautiful melodies, and his tunes are all great vehicles for improvisation. Nothing is overwritten or unnecessary, all the tunes are handwritten, and nearly every tune fits on one page. He’s also quite prolific, with a new tune for us almost every time we play. Since I joined the band the instrumentation has always been bass, drums, saxophone, and guitar, and we recorded our only album, “Trust”, shortly after the guitarist John Hart joined the group.

OCTOBER: Helen Sung Dizzy’s gig w/ Ron Carter, Kurt Elling, John Patitucci benefit
I’ve played with Helen Sung on and off for the last few years, and I felt very lucky when she called me this past October to play with her band at Dizzy’s at JALC. Helen had invited the legendary bassist Ron Carter to join us for the gig, and it was an honor to get to share the bandstand with him. I think I almost got fired before the gig though, as I got the start time mixed up with the end time for the rehearsal. I was sitting at home practicing flute when Helen called and said, “are you close?” My heart almost stopped. When I finally got to the rehearsal (an hour late), Helen wanted to skewer me, and rightfully so. Sorry Helen!

I also got the chance to join Kurt Elling‘s band at the Allen Room at JALC in October. Kurt was celebrating the release of his album “1619 Broadway” which features all tunes composed at the legendary Brill Building. I’ve been a fan of Kurt’s for a long time, and we even recorded together on Charlie Hunter’s “Songs From The Analog Playground”, but this was my first time playing with him live. His intonation is laser-precise and his range, both melodically and expressively, is breathtaking. He’s also a master storyteller, both through his singing and in his banter, and it was inspiring to see how he could improvise in his storytelling between songs just as effortlessly as he could within them.

I’ve been playing on and off with John Patitucci for the last several years, mostly in a trio format with drums, but this past October I got to participate in a benefit concert that John organized at his church up in Hastings with pianist Gerald Clayton, drummer Paolo Orlandi, percussionist Rogerio Boccato and vocalist Ruth Naomi Floyd. We raised money for two charities: Hastings Helps the Hungry, and The Sharing Community. John is so energetic that he makes me feel like an old man in his presence (has anyone else noticed that he doesn’t seem to age?) John is a true master; his unwavering commitment to the music and to his instrument for all these years is a great inspiration.

NOVEMBER: Cape May Jazz Festival, “Home” CD release party, Joe Sanders band at Smalls
I had a great time in November at the Cape May Jazz Festival. I was lucky to have the opportunity to play with two groups at the festival last year, Henry Cole’s group (which I talked about before), and Brandon Lee‘s quintet. Hurricane Sandy had just passed through, but Cape May was mostly spared. The main issue we confronted was trying to stay warm in the old hotel they put us in which wasn’t equipped with heat. They outfitted our rooms with small space heaters, but they were always about to either blow a fuse or burn the place down. The people who put on the festival were nice in every way, but they seemed determined to butcher everyone’s name in their introductions of the bands, an all too common occurrence at festivals worldwide that has always perplexed me (for example, in this case Ricky Rodriguez and Henry Cole became Enrique Rodriguez and Harry Cole). This was my first time playing Brandon’s music, and I had a blast; Brandon writes and plays with a deep knowledge of and love for the tradition of the music, but his playing is so honest and immediate – so free of artifice, conceit, and ego – that it sounds current and fresh in every way.

November also marked the release of “Home – Gift of Music”, a project produced by my friend, the director of programming at the Jazz Gallery, Rio Saikari. Rio, who is originally from Japan, wanted to do a project to benefit the victims of the earthquake that struck Japan in March of 2011. She invited a group of her friends to write and record songs for the CD, and I was lucky to be included in the bunch. I was a surprising choice, as all the artists she chose were established singers, and she wanted me to write and sing a song for the CD, as well. My first reaction was, “Are you sure?” I mean, I enjoy singing, and I’m not afraid to sing on a gig here and there, but I’ve never thought of my singing as very serious, and this recording marks my debut as a singer on CD. I was extremely grateful for the opportunity to participate in this project, which benefits such a worthy cause: all the artists donated their time and services and all proceeds benefit the ongoing efforts to help the folks in Japan whose lives were disrupted by the earthquake. Get your copy here.

One of my favorite gigs of the year was this past November, with Joe Sanders‘ band at Smalls. The band was a dream to play with, with Joe on bass, Aaron Parks on piano and Eric Harland on drums. I’ve been playing on and off with all of these guys for several years, but never in this exact configuration, and there was some special magic that night. Sometimes the stars align and everything feels effortless; the music seems to comes through us rather than from us. I live for moments like these, and it’s always a special gift when they happen.

DECEMBER: Farewell Jazz Gallery at 290 Hudson
The Jazz Gallery has been my main home for performances as a leader in NYC, so my heart was heavy when they closed up for good at 290 Hudson Street this past December. The good news is that they’re chugging along at their new location, 1160 Broadway, and their programming has stayed consistent throughout. I have benefited tremendously from The Gallery over the last 10 years; most importantly they have included me in a number of different composer’s commissioning programs, and through their belief in me and the deadlines created through these programs, I’ve had the opportunity to grow exponentially as a composer. The Gallery is where I began collaborating with my old friend, playwright Andy Bragen, and our three works together – Dreamscapes, The Ice Siren, and Mobro – are some of my proudest accomplishments.