Sunday, August 29, 2010

String Writing

String Writing In Jazz

This time I have written my post offline for later transfer (I have already told Ronan that I lost my text the other night when trying to respond).

When I first taught myself orchestration I approached it via every book I could find on the subject. There were score excerpts available from great classical writers through to Stockhausen as well as various writers using cut-out scores. I soon found myself getting under the hood of Ravel's Daphnis and Chloe, mainly because I heard a very prominent minor 9th chord along with Ravel's polytonality that has influenced so many jazz writers. It was very obvious from the get-go that anyone wising to study orchestration in classical music had a wealth of information available through sheet music shops and libraries. For me there was a gap - somewhere along the way the big band/dance band writers had adapted their approach to the string orchestra to accommodate jazz harmony as found in the big bands. Approaches to voice for Big Band were taking shape as soon as the line-up settled on a standard size for big band. We saw 6 brass moving to 7 before Don Redman introduced 8 brass and 5 saxes. The latter soon became the standard line for a jazz big band, along with it came a vocabulary of voicing techniques.

Both Henry Mancini and Nelson Riddle studied orchestration with Mario Castlenuovo-Tedesco - in Riddle's case, using his GI bill. Tedesco, taught his students by having them orchestrate piano music. Riddle's command of this was shown in his orchestration of the Gershwin Preludes and three lesser known Preludes for solo piano by Delius.

I have always been fascinated by the use of the orchestra in jazz, not just the strings. Why? Mainly because of some reasons Ronan has made in his post. Early big band writers tended to voice in parallel block writing - absent was the interplay between the two out voices as found in most of the classical repertoire and there was very rudimentary use of counterpoint, if at all. The dreaded pad? Pads were, as pointed out, often the result of lazy or deadline writing! The arranger knew it would sound good while the players had to struggle to stay awake. The best arrangers employed some inner movement even in the pads, and it makes all the difference to both the listener and the player. On a personal note, I blame technology for a regression in writing and usage of pads with the advent of synthesizers and keyboards. It would take two keyboardists to be able to execute some of the pads written by the best arrangers while many contemporary arrangers seemed to operate in a two hand span a lot of the time. Keyboard technique was now dictating the pad, and it was so much easier to hold a chord than worry about inner voice movement (or outer voice movement for that matter).

When I finished recording Jeremy Pelt's "Close To My Heart" album, for which I wrote the string charts I was more fired up than ever to try and see scores by the great arrangers who had paved the initial ground for others to follow. I was most interested in their use of 'divisi' writing to cope with the number of notes in contemporary chord voicings. This is one area where transcription will at best, be an approximation - mainly because of the difficulty of knowing which instrument is playing which note, especially on older recordings. For example, in a three note lower structure voicing, Conrad Salinger had the celli playing the outer notes while the violas played the middle note.

I set about collecting scores from these great writers and have spent the last few years marveling at their work. 
The Ravel and Debussy influence can be heard in many writers, also Bartok, Delius, Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky and Aaron Copland. The opening pyramid from Appalachian Spring when played as a vertical structure became the basis of some of the voicing approaches by Nelson Riddle in his arrangements of "I Get Along Without You Very Well" for Frank Sinatra and later Linda Ronstadt. The same voicing shows up in his chart on the same song for Eddie Fisher. Robert Farnon's command of counterpoint and love of Debussy and Bartok showed itself in much of his writing (he met Bartok in New York at the McDowell Society). Farnon, Riddle, Gordon Jenkins, Axel Stordahl, Ralph Carmichael, Bill Finegan, Johnny Mandel, Angela Morley and more recently Jeremy Lubbock had voicings that were like thumbprints that were unique to each of them. The use of string quartet tended to be more of a budget decision with some exceptions - The magnificent "Close To You" album by Sinatra/Riddle features the Hollywood String Quartet (members include Felix (1st violin and Sinatra concertmaster) and Eleanore Slatkin (cello). This album was a commercial flop at the time although history has been much kinder to it. It got lost in the shuffle of other Capitol Sinatra recordings even though it features some of Sinatra's best vocal's of the period. Riddle spent a lot more time on these arrangements, consulting a lot with the Slatkins while Leonard Slatkin remembers much discussion of the Ravel and Debussy quartets (for more details see Charles Granata's book "Sessions With Sinatra"). Eddie Sauter's string writing for the Stand Getz "Focus" album still receives almost a genuflection when mentioned. Bill Finegan's string charts on Ellington's music for a Sonny Stitt album also contain some great overlooked writing. William Grant Still straddled both sides of the classical/jazz fence - his slow movement of his 2nd Symphony is breathtaking. Johnny Mandel's restraint on Shirley Horn's "Here's To Life" has some of the most tasteful writing with beautiful use of pads and economic movement. Jeremy Lubbock's intervallic writing for strings appears in even some of the most commercial projects he's been hired for. Claus Ogerman overcame potential pitching issues in tight, cluster writing by clever division of the string section.

The Charlie Parker With Strings arrangements have also interested me for some time. I have all the scores and parts and have often felt the following. The writing style behind Bird seemed at first,  dated, even for it's time. Bird's playing seemed so modern and I must say, there is a feeling of joy in his playing on these sessions. It is no surprise to learn that he sobered up for these sessions according to some sources. Annie Keubler, Rutgers also told me that Mary Lou Williams told her that Bord had asked her to write the string arrangements and she refused because of his health (they were close friends) - Annie quoted Mary Lou as saying "I won't work with you when you're like this". My connection with these works are through some work I've been doing with Steve Wilson (alto). Steve doesn't try to do a Bird impersonation, though the influence is there. In one concert he played 'his bag' on these charts and it worked so beautifully - sometimes, playing or hearing it live is all that it takes...

Blue Mitchell's "Smooth As The Wind" features very inventive string writing by Tadd Dameron, leaving me wondering what his orchestral writing would have been like had be been given more chances. The title track is a beautiful arrangement - these charts were written from Lexington, Ky., prison while serving a narcotics conviction.

Now I'm off to listen to the Bartok quartets 3,4 & 5 which, by pure coincidence Fintan O'Neill had just given me...

Friday, August 6, 2010

A Tale of Two Cities, Three Drummers, One song - 30 years later

When I was deep in the early throes of discovering the vast wealth of recorded materiel that could be found in various musicians' record collections I had the good fortune to get to have many late night listening sessions at the late John Wadham's house. I need to explain a few things first :) The two best sources for jazz records in Dublin were either a small store in Gaiety Green (a formal flea market - long since gone) run by Mick Fagan, a gentleman I feel privileged to have known, and another store called Discfinder. The latter had some good stuff but tended to be marked up in price if memory serves me correctly. Other than these there appeared to be few other places that carried more than a handful of jazz records. Either you took a trip to London to the jazz record shops there or better still, someone going to the states... I once told my parents to bring back 'anything by Pat Martino or Cedar Walton" when they were visiting relatives here. For anyone reading this, not from Ireland or the UK - John Wadham was the most respected drummer in Ireland at the time. Many's the time I stood online at the Baggot Inn to hear Louis Stewart on one of his return gigs from his stint in Ronnie Scott's band - a line that contained as many drummers wanting to see "Johnny" Wadham.

John's batting average with his students was nothing short of remarkable! They read like a who's who of professional drumming in Ireland. Almost 5 years ago when Jeremy Pelt and peter Washington came to our then new house, here in Oceanport New Jersey for a cookout Peter started asking where the sound system was. I told him that I either listened on the computer, ipod, headphones or a cheap surround sound that we had in the den. Peter invited me to come to his place to listen to some music on his hifi and made it clear that he thought Jennifer and I had the ideal setup to listen to music. Jennifer chimed in that she had been trying to convince me to get a good sound system and couldn't understand why I didn't already have one. During the conversation I protested how much this stuff costs and Peter pointed to our flat screen TV 42" Plasma and said "You could probably get a really nice pair of speakers for half of what you paid for that TV". Two days later I'm listening to vinyl and CDs in Peter's place and am convinced I can tell where the sax section is seated in Peter's place :) Peter stood behind to the right or left while he gave up the 'sweet spot' and I immediately thought of John Wadham. John used to smoke a pipe and sip a glass of port while he played many albums for us.

Pianist George Mesterhazy kicked up my listening by several notches by just arriving at the house one day with a pair of Genelec speakers! "Nearfield monitors" I would soon learn was their title :) I listened to the Sinatra "Close To You" album and could hear great separation with the string quartet. I thought of Peter, then John and then my dad, an Upholsterer who loved music all his life. My Dad had bartered his labor to get a starter hifi that would soon be upgraded to a Quad preamp and Quad Power amp - Garrard record player with an SME pickup arm. He never got the Electrostatic speakers that Quad made but John Wadham had them and I could clearly remember the sound from them. George had returned me to listening through equipment that highlighted instruments and textures I just didn't hear on cheaper setups.

Recently I finally went for it! I bought some Hifi gear and made some great connections thanks to the kindness of Billy Drummond. Billy invited me to come buy and listen to his setup(s). HIs generosity with his time and his home led to me ask about a Jack McDuff album that featured a 19 year old  George Benson playing "Four Brothers" live. I hadn't ever been able to find it and had long since stopped searching. Billy had it! It was called the "Concert Jack McDuff" and 30 years later I heard the track I used to ask John Wadham to play for me. He would ask what I wanted to hear and I would say "Could I hear that again?" and he would patiently play it for me over and over. I grew up listening to music on hifi thanks to my Dad and indeed John! I am know the proud owner of a pair of Martin Logan Sequel II hybrids (electrostaic speakers with a woofer cone), Emotiva preamp and stereo power amp, Arcam CD/DVD player and thanks to drummer number three - Jonathan Mele - I play vinyl on his Project Debut III turntable. I'm left with a question - do the younger musicians get together to listen to CDs, mp3s etc or is that a thing of the past? I hope they do - I feel blessed to have experienced the kindness of the above mentioned gentlemen as my ears were and are treated to all the beautiful sounds I have enjoyed!

Until next time... :-)

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Classical Composers and the complexity of their work

I recently read a blog by a singer/songwriter whose work I have always admired through various phases of his very creative career. I was, let's say, a tad disappointed to read his almost blanket dismissal of their entire bodies of work because a) of it's complexity - he preferred simple, and b) he seemed to focus on those composers who had used their folk music as a catalyst for some of their oeuvre. Here's what he said about Mozart "As a child I found myself listening to Mozart and, while impressed by his total grasp of the fundamentals of rhythm melody and harmony, I remained emotionally untouched. There was a pristine logic to the piano concertos but still I was unmoved. It felt closer to mathematics or architecture than to what I wanted from music. Wolfgang was tuneful, no doubt, but his tunes seemed twee, clever, polite, lacking in what I’d later call ‘soul’ or even ‘balls’ and… somewhat obvious. He sounded like a smart-ass, a know-it-all and frankly a kid I didn’t feel I wanted to bother to get to know." First of all, this singer songwriter is blessed to live in an age when, aside form printed transcriptions of his performances, one can listen to his recordings to get a feel for how he played them, tempo etc not so with Bach, Mozart and co. When I attended the Barenboim conducting workshops DB talked at length of how written music was simply a tool, an inexact science and then there's the debate about Beethoven's metronome and whether it worked properly or not.

Some years back I found myself listening a lot to the John Field Nocturnes, and being Irish I felt a sense of pride that a man from my country of birth wrote such beautiful, influential music. I soon found out that he left Dublin at a very young age to take up his position as Clementi's protegé and, oh yes, piano salesman/demonstrator :) My national pride went even further when I listened to John O'Conor and Miceál O'Rourke play these Nocturnes - I was struck by the beauty of their playing and the very different approach they both took to interpreting the music. IN simplistic terms, Field was at the end of  Beethoven's era, enjoying the benefits of the new pianofortes with pedals  while a young Chopin used the Field Nocturnes as a model for his own collection of Nocturnes. Chopin also liked to use Field's Nocturnes when teaching composition students. With this in mind, I noticed that John O'Conor, a former winner of the Beethiven Competition, interpreted the ornamentation as he would whilst playing Beethoven, and it worked beautifully. O'Rourke, on the other hand, had won the Chopin competition and he played the ornamentation, you guessed if he was playing a work by Chopin! Again, it worked so beautifully. As a young jazz musician I was used to hearing classical music being criticized for being played "the same way every time" and other lame comments like that. Nowadays I very much doubt that great artists like the two mentioned are able to play the same way twice. Barenboim, in his  Barenboim On Beethoven DVD series described how each time he returns to a Beethoven cycle, that he learned so much that was new or  found something he didn't remember from his previous go 'round. What must it have been like to hear these composers perform their own work.

Complexity? Ever notice how babies are drawn to classical music - they can follow the logic, in their own way.  My oldest son, now approaching his 4th birthday (october) - sat calmly through the weaving lines of Bach's Well Tempered Clavier, performed by Glenn Gould - today, he goes from the songs on Thomas, to the Beatle's Revolver album (he has the lyrics memorized from only a few listens), Beethoven's 5th to Mozart Sonata in C Major - "Daddy, listen! - It's Baby Mozart" - he knows it from the Baby Einstein series.

AS Bob Dylan sang in The Times They Are A Changing  "Don't Criticize what you can't understand..."

End of rant, until the next time... Stay Well!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Using plugins when I work in Sibelius pt 1

Hi everybody,

I've been using Sibelius software to score music on for 10 years now (maybe more). I switched from Finale once Sibelius became available for Mac. At that time, Sib. could not do many of the tasks that were, IMO essential to jazz writing but there was a ease of use that seemed to give one the feeling that one day many if not all of these features would be available. In the meantime, many of these features did become available along with enhancements I could not have imagined. Music software and peoples expectations of it are as varied as the many styles and genres of music (glad I'm not in that business). Sibelius has since added 'Dynamic Parts' along with some beauties like 'Change Instrument' great for woodwind doubles in the sax section - a huge time saver. More recently Magnetic Layout has helped to bring 'near perfect' layout in parts. A few versions back we were moving chords, rehearsal marks and various collision items out of the way. I'm waxing lyrical here so it may seem like I have no gripes - not true :) Those who know me well know that I saw huge potential in the 'Arrange' feature. Many have said, and I agree, it should have been called 'Orchestrate'. This feature was never finished and largely ignored since it came out in Sib. 2. The ability to 'explode' vertical harmonic structures and assign them to multiple staves is invaluable to any orchestrator who is under the gun. How could 'Arrange' work for me? If Sibelius would simply take the artificial intelligence out of the feature, or make it optional - that would be a huge start and would remove all the octave jumping while the software tries to disagree with your lead trumpeter's range. Yes, you could set up templates with this preset but we shouldn't have to workaround this. Handling of tuplets in Implode is the other issue - that can be gotten around by using Dave Foster's 'Reduce' plugin. His Explode plugin is limited to 4 voices making it useful to a point. Some writers sketch their brass big band into one staff ad want to explode 8-10 voices in one go. Five parts for saxophone sections etc.

Plugins have added features to Sibelius that are now part of my standard way of using the software for some years now. The plugin writers often donate their work or sell for low prices. Bob Zawalich has written some plugins that have changed the way I work entirely, as has Dave Foster, Neil Sands and more recently Roman Molino Dunn . I will write a blog on Bob's plugins soon and chose to start about Roman as his was the last plugin I downloaded. I recently worked on a producing a lot of parts for a Big Band performance and used a plugin that has not been released by Roman yet - AutoPartLayout. This was a raw version but still got me several steps closer to what I needed than the initial Sib layout. Roman intends to release this plugin soon and I would advice any arranger who produces his own parts or indeed engraver, to take a look at it. On my recent Zinc Bar gig I used Distribute Selection, Distribute Chords while on the 'Bird With Strings' gig with Steve Wilson I used the plugin for writing bowings in.

More to come...

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Zinc Bar Gig (April 29th) Pt 1.

On a recent Sunday performance at the Jazz For Kids show at Jazz Standard I was pleasantly surprised to see Alex Kossi from Zinc Bar along with his family. I hadn't seen Alex in nearly 10 years (at a guess) so it was great to catch up. Within the week I met Alex at Zinc Bar's new location where we settled on a performance date for my new big band The David O'Rourkestra. Folks ;) This is not just any gig to me - it marks my first time to lead a band in a NYC jazz club in a number of years since I backed off performing when arranging took a hold of me. Sure, I strapped on the guitar for private parties and other under the radar gigs accompanying vocalists etc but I seemed to lose interest in leading a band. In the meantime the Jazz Standard Youth Orchestra and it's impact on it's members and alumni began to take on a life of it's own while providing me with a lot feeling of fulfillment as I watched these very talented youngsters grow into great performers.

For the Zinc Bar gig I will be joined by Jennifer O'Rourke and Nina D'Alessandro on vocals - [Joseph Walsh will make a guest appearance also]. Pianist George Mesterhazy, Bassist Alex Herrnandez, drummer Jon Mele make up the rhythm section along with yours truly on guitar. I will follow this post with updates that will include more background on the upcoming, the musicians who will be joining me etc. I will post about George Mesterhazy and my trips to Cape May to perform with George's Trio at the Merion Inn.

Back later...

Monday, February 22, 2010

So what have you been up to? and other questions Part 1

One of my dreams coming to the USA was to know the feeling of playing jazz with great players 6-7 nights per week and even multiple gigs per night. My stint as house bandleader at 27 Standard (upstairs from The Jazz Standard - now Blue Smoke) gave me just that. For a brief period I was still playing in Seleno Clarke's band in Harlem doubling up on gigs at weekends (6+ sets per night). This became hectic whenever I was also trying to write for a new project but somehow I got it done. It was not unusual for me to get sick at the tail end of a project having pushed myself to my own limit. I always felt torn between playing live and writing but never really had to choose one over the other as I was never slammed with work in both disciplines at the same time and for a sustained period of time. Despite my love of arranging, the cost of a large ensemble combined with my not having a 'name' in the field made it less likely for big projects to come my way.

It was while playing the last Cork jazz Festival with Jeremy Pelt, Lewis Nash and Peter Washington that Jeremy asked me about writing the string arrangements for his upcoming "Close To My Heart" recording. I was thrilled to be asked for a number of reasons - great tunes, great band and the rare chance to use strings in a jazz setting. I had studied Big Band writing extensively - still do along with orchestration. I became aware that while I could purchase many great big band writer's scores I couldn't seem to get any arrangements for strings/orchestra in the way I could purchase classical scores. I had basic questions - how did these guys divide the string section to accommodate jazz harmony or dance band harmony as it was sometimes called in the period just before and after World War II. I set about on a search of scores by the great master writers and soon found an avalanche of approaches and got answers to many of my questions. I will make this research the subject of blog post by itself.

Along the way I had attended Daniel Barenboim's conducting workshop for the Carnegie Hall education department, knowing that I would need more than a basic knowledge of this great art if I was to get the best out of my own arrangements. The opening moments of Wagner's Prelude and Liebestod to Tristan & Isolde was a defining moment for me. Having just turned 40 I was not in a position to start full time conservatory to embark upon studies to become a conductor but I reminded myself that my musical journey had always had my impulse at it's fore. As I began to write more, including for the then newly formed Jazz Standard Youth Orchestra (JSYO) I began to play the guitar less and less. I was excited by the opportunities to write for different ensembles and express that side of myself for the first time in a sustained way.

I got married to Jennifer, we had our first baby Finn. By this stage I hadn't taken out the guitar in some time and it was only as a result of Jennifer nagging me, under protest to play for Finn because she didn't want him growing up and finding out his daddy had played guitar for a living and he not know that side of me. She hit a nerve! My Dad had stopped playing piano as a result of his alcoholism by the time I was growing up and I, being the youngest have no recollection of him playing in his prime - my brother Michael does though! He sat under the baby grand piano mesmerized by the sounds he heard. Back to Jennifer and Finn ;) I grumbled about Finn being 6 months old and what's he going to care etc As soon as I played a calypso for him he went crazy! Next I played some jazz and improvised and he was clearing loving it while Jennifer gave me that 'see what I mean' look! Around this time I was communicating with Alan Traynor on Skype. Alan was living in Kansas City and was frustrated by his progress on the guitar. Taking the guitar in hand to show Alan some stuff is now one of my fondest memories both for his gratitude for anything I'd show him but also for the reminded to myself of the joy I could bring someone through my guitar playing - Thanks Alan! Also around this time Peter Bernstein found out I hadn't been playing when he reached out for some help with his arrangements for the Blue Note 7 band. He shoved his guitar into my hand upon arrival in his house - I mentioned to Peter that I had a chance to play at the Plaza Hotel in a month's time to which he responded "A month! You could get ready for a marathon in a month!" Up to this point I had conducted the RTE Concert Orchestra twice in Nelson Riddle Tributes and found my stepping into new shoes not sitting well with some while at the same time feeling terrific support from others. You only live once! In Part 2 I will talk about my return to regular performance on the guitar...

Best to all,


Well here I am ;)

Hi everybody,

Welcome to my new blog. In an earlier version of my website I had a 'journal' and a few devoted readers. Here I will keep the same approach of posting some posts about music, some personal and sometimes the inevitable mix of everything. Watch this space and I'll see you soon!