Wednesday, May 31, 2017
In preparing my show last week, I dusted off several transcriptions of Ella's arrangements that I had written very early in my career. Those were, after all, the first songs I wished to learn how to transcribe when I was a jazz arranging student. I have been singing them in public for so many years and they never get old, because, well, let's face it--the music of Nelson Riddle and George Shearing is timeless. So those transcriptions will be used again and again, long after I'm gone, I am sure.
I also ventured to create a few new arrangements, plus one that was essentially a note-for-note transcription of Ella's original recording of "A Tisket-A-Tasket" with the Chick Webb Orchestra. This was her first big hit with the band, and it made her an instant international star. I was a bit surprised that the entire audience (as well as the band) did not know the parts in which audience participation was traditionally included ("So do we, so do we..." and "Was it green? Was it red? Was it blue?") It is hard to remember sometimes that my obsession with Ella dating back to the 1970s was not shared by American youth's cultural consciousness... I did not hear this song on the radio--I heard it because I FOUND it and listened to it tirelessly for years and years... So again, I was surprised that my fascination with Ella actually set me apart from the band and the audience last week to a certain degree. Of course I knew the songs very well because I had prepared to perform them...for several decades, in fact... but why didn't they?
There is one aspect of this song that I find somewhat confusing. The poem reads "I sent a letter to my Mommy and on the way I dropped it." Later the text says "a little girlie picked it up and put it in her pocket..." Still later, Ella complains that she wonders about the whereabouts of her "little yellow basket" and hopes the girl will bring it back. The letter or the basket? Didn't she drop a letter on the way to the post office? What's this about dropping a basket? And how can a little girl put a basket in her pocket? This ambiguity really sets me off. How can I properly prepare a performance when I can't even ascertain what the song is about? A lost letter or a lost basket? What happened to the letter? Did it ever get delivered? Isn't that more important than stewing about an over-the-arm, wicker, letter- carrying basket? Sometimes I just don't know...
Well, I have accepted that I may never learn the secret to the letter/basket question. The answer, like a host of other ambiguous song lyrics, is probably blowing in the wind.
Sunday, April 23, 2017
So many days of our lives, depending on who we are, and on our psychological makeup, are dotted with moments of discouragement. How do we move through them as artists, and how do we give our audiences the quality shows they expect, even during these trying times? I am helped when I concentrate my mental focus on "the zone..." that beautiful milieu of freedom, creativity, awareness of the music around me, and complete divorce from distraction. Negative self-talk is particularly destructive during a performance, so part of this strategy is to grasp my mental energies onto something positive--the present moment of music-making--so that I cannot devote any energy whatsoever toward criticizing my performance, or thinking about discouraging circumstances. The time and place for self-analysis is always in the practice room before and after a performance--NEVER DURING!
Another strategy for managing the challenging circumstances of our up-and-down lives is to work in time for meditation every day. I confess that I do not always manage this well, but when I do, my ability to concentrate, to stay positive, and to feel productive in my life and work are always enhanced. Meditation is accomplished in many different ways by different people. One must not feel threatened by the spiritual energy of the process--meditation is healthy for people of all faiths. It has been said by Christian, Jewish, and other philosophers that, through meditation, God speaks to us... Prayer, of course, represents us speaking to God. It seems that if an individual seeks healthy two-way communication in any relationship, one must be as willing to listen as to speak! And so we meditate our way back to emotional health and wellness...
Physical exercise has helped to get me through so many rough patches in life. When truly upset about something, there's nothing like a good, long run to spend that energy in a healthy way. Exercise also clears one's head and dispels the high emotional response of stress and overwhelm. Getting into shape also helps us feel better about ourselves, which is a key way to combat discouragement when circumstances of life are less than ideal.
Finally, remembering that we are in very good company can be most comforting. All of our heroes battle discouragement at one time or another, and rising above one's difficulty is itself a heroic act. While situations change, our attitudes can reflect gratitude, kindness and love for those around us. Forgetting our troubles and helping someone with theirs is a sure way to improve our moods. Put another way, carrying our crosses, and acknowledging the crosses that others carry, remind us that we are all human and we are on this journey together. Happy to journey with you...
Tuesday, February 28, 2017
Next month I have the distinct privilege of serving the U.S. Army Band, "Pershing's Own," as their Artist-In-Residence for a few days. During our time together, I will teach a master class and lead an improvisation workshop, and offer two coaching sessions for the Army Voices, a highly select group of professional singers who perform a variety of genres well, including vocal jazz. The highlight of this journey will be sharing a joint concert (date to be rescheduled due to winter storm Stella) with Army Voices and Army Blues (a most outstanding jazz "big band") as their guest artist. The concert will open at Brucker Hall, Arlington National Cemetery, and include a number of various ensemble configurations. There will be a set of my original pieces which I will sing with a small jazz combo (and I'll play the piano with the trio on one tune). There will also be a set of pieces during which I will perform with the big band, and another set with the vocal jazz ensemble. This concert mash-up lends itself to the variety I cherish, and is a great honor, because this band and vocal jazz ensemble are among the best in the world!
Another ensemble configuration I absolutely love is the symphony orchestra. I am fortunate to have two symphony shows (holiday pops and jazz pops) which I perform with various symphonies here and there. Conductors and executive directors of American symphonies (or those abroad) are welcome to contact me to discuss dates and programs available. Regardless of the ensemble size or instrumentation, live music itself is paramount and its culturally vital message of beauty and inherent value should never be underestimated. I hope that those of you in the Washington, D.C. area will join us for a fabulous show of the immense talent possessed by our young men and women serving in the U.S. Army Bands!