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,


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