Category Archives: Musings

The Accessible Music Notation Project

An important announcement!

Some of you may know that I have been working on and off over the past few years on tools and methodology to support blind musicians as well as educators working with them.  I have managed to put this work to good use in my own teaching, but so far, I have not developed anything really polished enough to be ready to share it with the rest of the world.  Recently, I became inspired to try to change that.  After engaging in discussions with some blind musicians and educators – including some of the experts in the field – I have come to believe strongly that that there are some real needs here and some real opportunities to address them.  While I am sure there are any number of people more qualified than I to be dealing with these issues, the universe seems to be telling me that I need to take the initiative to start making some things happen.  So, I have launched The Accessible Music Notation Project:

http://accessiblemusicnotation.wordpress.com/

Right now, the “we” referred to throughout the site is the “royal we” – that is, it’s really just me speaking for myself (albeit with the support of some people I respect).  But I hope to see the project grow over time.  I hope to find musicians and educator willing to share their ideas regarding what is needed, programmers willing to help address these needs, and perhaps people and organizations willing to help fund these efforts.

I honestly do not know where all this might lead, but I have ideas of what I think is possible, and I intend to be setting forth as time permits.  Please feel free to share this and if you have ideas for me, please let me know.  Replies on the site itself would probably be best for any substantial comments.  One of the whole reasons for creating the site was to make sure there was a permanent record of some of the ideas being tossed around via email over the past few weeks.

A Birthday Present from Tom Harrell

This week I got to see trumpeter Tom Harrell play with his quintet at Dazzle here in Denver, and it was fantastic. The group featured Wayne Escoffery on saxophone, Danny Grissett on piano, Ugonna Okegwo on bass, and Donald Edwards on drums. The pictures that illustrate this story are from that show, and there are more pictures here. However, the story I am about to tell you is about seeing him in a different context a few years back. It’s kind of a long story, but I think you’ll enjoy it.

For my 40th birthday, I treated myself to dinner and a concert by Tom Harrell at the Mount Vernon Country Club. The show was billed as the Tom Harrell Piano Trio, and the promo made specific mention of the fact that Tom would be playing piano as well as the trumpet/flugelhorn he is famous for. Now, Tom is known as one the best trumpeter players in the world, but no one really knew anything about his piano playing. And as some folks reading this are probably also aware, he has some well-publicized mental health issues (diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic), and between that and the effects of the medication he takes to control his condition, there is always some element of mystery where Tom is concerned. So between that and the fact that no one in attendance had ever heard him play piano, and no one really had no idea what to expect that night.

I arrived early as I had made reservations for dinner before the show. I came alone, as my wife had a gig, and I was seated at a small table directly in front of the piano. I wondered for a moment if Peter – the general manager of the place and a huge jazz fan whom I had met but did not know well – had somehow made sure I would have a good view because he knew I was a pianist (he almost certainly would not have known it was my birthday). I decided this was pretty unlikely – why would the general manager be looking over seating arrangements personally? – and attributed my prime seating to nothing but coincidence and good fortune. During the buffet dinner, though, I happened to walk past where Peter was sitting, and he stopped me and asked if I liked my table. Apparently, he had deliberately sat me there after all; I was originally supposed to off in a corner somewhere.

But that’s not all. Peter then asked me if I would like to sit in and give Tom a chance to just concentrate on trumpet for a tune or two. Not that he had checked with Tom yet, but Peter wanted to gauge my interest. I was kind of stunned – I’m a reasonably well known pianist in the area, but people aren’t normally asked to sit on concerts of this sort, and frankly, as far as I knew, Peter had barely heard me play before. I told him I would certainly love to play with Tom, and that I even knew one of his tunes – Sail Away. Peter told me he’d check with Tom and get back to me. I went back to my table and finished my dinner.

So then the concert started. Tom has written a whole bunch of new material lately, so he and the rest of the band were all reading it. I liked the moods they created. Tom mostly played the piano. I suspect that Peter, like most people there, probably wanted to hear Tom play a little more trumpet, as that’s what he is famous for resides, and that’s probably why he was so keen on having me sit in.

They finished up by playing a bebop tune and Tom introduced the bassist and drummer (the first words out of his mouth all evening). Then they left to a round of applause. At that point, Peter (the general manager) lept up to the stage and encouraged us to keep clapping, and maybe Tom would come back for an encore – and Marc Sabatella (that’s me) might even join them.

Sure enough, Tom and the band came back out, and Peter motioned me on stage. He had told Tom I knew Sail Away, but the bassist looked at me and said he didn’t really know the tune, so Tom and I should just do it as a duo. It shocked me at first that Tom’s bassist wouldn’t know what was undoubtedly his most famous composition, but apparently they had been playing Tom’s new music exclusively in this group. I tried suggesting we just do a standard we all knew, but I don’t think Tom heard any of this exchange, and he started counting off Sail Away in his usual manner (“uh, uh, uh, uh”). Tom started playing the melody, I started accompanying him, and the bassist and drummed slipped out the back.

Now, what happens next is best appreciated if I give you a little bit of backstory. Back when I was in college at FSU in the 80′s, another famous trumpeter – Red Rodney – did a concert as a featured soloist with our school big band. I was new enough to jazz that I didn’t know who he was, although someone probably told me he had once played with Charlie Parker. What I did know was that I had this big unaccompanied solo right in the middle of an arrangement of My Romance - a whole chorus of nothing but me. But no one told Red this. On the concert, when it came time for my solo, and the rest of the band dropped out, Red just kept playing, so it was me and him. Now, had I been a mature adult with any respect for jazz history, I would have been in heaven, thinking to myself, “how cool is this – I’m playing a duo with Red Rodney”! But alas, I was young, cocky, and ignorant, and my actual thoughts ran more along the lines of, “you m*****f***er, get off the stage – this is my solo”! I’ve been paying for this in bad karma ever since, with the price usually involving someone stepping on one of my solos on that same tune (which has happened on several other occasions strangely enough).

So, now, back to Mount Vernon. Tom Harrell counted off Sail Away, and it’s just me and him. I’m thinking to myself, “how cool is this – I’m playing a duo with Tom Harrell”! I even managed to flash back to my experience with Red Rodney and laugh a little at myself for having wished Red Rodney would leave the stage and let me have my solo. So there I am up on stage with Tom, finally able to appreciate the opportunity I was being blessed with. I was playing accompaniment as he started playing the melody: “da da daah; da da dah da dah da daah; da da dah da dah da daah, daah, daaah…”. And then – I swear I could not possibly make this up – before we got ten seconds into the piece, Tom walked off the stage and left me to finish it for myself, thus ending our duo and giving me the solo performance I had stupidly wished for 20 years earlier.

I knew enough about Tom’s condition not to take this personally. There could have been any number of reasons for him to have left in the middle of the tune like that, and there was no point in worrying about what they were. More pressing was the question of what to actually do about it. I considered simply stopping right where I was, walking off the stage myself, and forgetting the whole thing. I considered just finishing up the melody and cutting it off there. But what I decided was this: people are there listening, so I might as well give them some music. So I played the rest of the melody myself, took a rather perfunctory but serviceable solo chorus, and as I was getting ready to play the head out, Tom rejoined me, so we did finish the tune together. The bassist and drummer came back with him, and Tom asked if I would join them for a tune everyone knew, so we played Like Someone In Love.” The bassist informed me they did this in Ab, which is not one of the three keys this tune is most commonly played in. But I had spent the better part of two years learning to handle just that sort of situation – basically teaching myself to transpose by ear. So while it might not have been a great performance on my part, I acquitted myself well enough. And that was that.

After the show, we speculated on what happened. Someone suggested to me that perhaps Tom had left because he felt bad about doing an encore without the rest of his band. Someone else told me the piano was turned up fairly high in the monitors because Tom had a relatively light touch, and when I played with my heavier touch, it may have been too loud for him. Just this week when my wife interviewed him for her radio show on KUVO, we learned that Sail Away has major personal significance for Tom, and it is possible that whatever he was thinking, he may have been overcome with emotion as well. But I cannot discount karma as an explanation, either.

I did get to talk to Tom myself a little right after playing with him, but of course I didn’t come out and directly ask about that, and I think I’m just as happy not having a definitive answer. Oh well. I got to hear a nice concert, had a great time on Like Someone In Love, had that surreal ten second experience on Sail Away, and most of all, came away with a story to tell. Not a bad way to spend one’s 40th birthday. Tom, if you’re reading this, thank you!

Creative Improvised Music – A Wakeup Call From Ken Vandermark

I attended a show recently that featured saxophonist Ken Vandermark, and it got me thinking.

I first became aware of Ken almost 20 years ago. At the time, I was mostly into very mainstream jazz – Charlie Parker, Bill Evans, etc. I was knew of, had respect for, but didn’t really listen much to, certain “free jazz” musicians that had strong ties to the tradition – Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman in particular. And at some point after moving to Colorado in 1988, I began subscribing to Cadence magazine. Cadence covers jazz, but also more generally “creative improvised music” – much of which exists outside the radar of the mainstream jazz media. And it seemed that every other CD they reviewed at that time featured Ken Vandermark.

I don’t know that it is possible to describe this music succinctly, because by its very nature, much of it defies convention of genre or idiom. It often involves improvisation that is free of typical chord structures and hence is often atonal. Some people find it hard to identify any sort of structure, but then, many find it hard to recognize structure in bebop.

I started listening to some of this music, including Ken’s, and was intrigued. For quite some time I worked incorporating some of these sounds and ideas into my own composition and playing, and I found it very musically rewarding. I even ended up recording a CD with trumpeter Hugh Ragin for the Creative Improvised Music Projects label, which is run by the same folks (Bob Rusch & company) that publish Cadence Magazine.

That was all while having a day job as a software engineer, treating music as a hobby. At some point I realized that playing music “as a hobby” was about as fulfilling as when someone you really like tells you that they like you too – “as a friend”. So I quit the day job and went into music full time. At some point after that, however, I had to accept that as personally fulfilling as this “creative improvised music” was, my career pretty much demanded I focus primarily on traditional forms. Between playing a steady gig for many years at El Chapultepec (where it was all about playing “standards”), going back to school to study composition, teaching jazz theory, and any number of other factors, my musical thinking has been much more focused on mainstream jazz again for the last decade or so. It’s not that I deliberately turned my back on “creative improvised music”, but I did not go out of my way to make room for it, either, and not surprisingly, it didn’t make room for me.

When Ken Vandermark came to town last week with Dutch musician Ab Baars, I of course attended, and really enjoyed the performance. It also served as a wakeup call – a reminder of something that had been missing from my musical expression for too long. I’m not sure how I’ll respond to that realization, but it was an eye-opener. I still have a lot of straightahead compositions I hope to record soon, and I still expect to be making my living playing mainstream jazz. But I need to keep in mind what it was I loved so much that it set me on this path in the first place.

Here are some shots from the concert featuring Ken along with saxophonist Ab Baars, bassist Wilbert De Joode, and drummer Martin van Duynhoven:

By the way, I was also surprised to see that Ken was about the same age as me, and had actually only just hit the scene when I became aware of him. For some reason, as much as I was seeing his name back then, I assumed he had been around a long time already.

A couple more shots:

Returning To The Scene

As some of you know, I played the piano at a jazz club in Denver called El Chapultepec (aka “the Pec”) for a number of years, ending back in July. I hadn’t been back since – not because there were any hard feelings, but simply because there hadn’t been any particular reason to visit. A few days ago, the saxophonist I had worked with most of those years – Keith Oxman – suggested we meet there and visit. OK, and also to see about maybe playing there again. When they ended our run last summer, they decided not to have anyone there on a steady basis any more on weekend nights but instead to bring in different bands each night, as most clubs do. No particular reason we couldn’t be one of them!

So we dropped by last night. It was great to see the owner Angela, the bartender James, and the rest of the crew again. The band du jour was led by trumpeter Hugh Ragin, who was the first musician I worked with regularly in Colorado, going back almost 20 years. This from last night:

BTW, that was shot at 1/6″. I was able to rest my elbows on a countertop, so you can’t credit me or Pentax shake reduction too much for the lack of camera shake. But for the lack of subject motion blur, you’ve got to credit Hugh, who has one of the most relaxed trumpet techniques you’re ever likely to see.

They’ve made some cosmetic changes at the Pec over the last few months. Nothing really major – some faux brickwork behind the stage, new carpet in the dining area, etc. But one of the most immediately noteworthy changes was the lighting. At least the way they had it set last night, it was still as bad as ever toward the front of the stage where Hugh was. But the light on the piano was a *lot* brighter and cooler than in the past. Actually, I think it mostly came from a neon beer sign, but light is light. In this shot of pianist Ron Jolly, it’s hard to recognize it as the same place, as anyone who has tried to shoot there will attest:

Keith and I sat in and played a tune or two. No pictures of me, of course, but here’s Keith, pretty much back to 100% after his bout with cancer:

On those last two, I’ll take some credit for good timing in getting reasonably sharp pictures at shutter speeds of 1/20″ and 1/15″ respectively :-)

Oh yeah – we did talk to Angela, and she’s more than happy to have us back from time to time. I think playing there on an occasional basis will be great – it will be more likely that we’ll be able to get people to show up to hear us as opposed to just depending on the people who happen to drop in as we always had (it’s the busiest neighborhood in the city). So hopefully I’ll be seeing some of you there at some point!

Hymn For Peter

Dedicated to Peter Fopeano (1965-2008)

Listen to a (simulated) orchestra playing my composition, “Hymn for Peter”

My wife Wendy’s family has a large Thanksgiving gathering every few years, with relatives coming in from all over the world. Although he would sometimes make the trip for part of the time, her youngest brother Peter was never able to be with us on Thanksgiving day itself, because he worked at a casino and Thanksgiving was one of their busiest days of the year.



Peter lost his job earlier a few months ago, and while that is seldom a good thing, one silver lining was that he was going to be on Thanksgiving for the first time in many years. Although this year was not going to be one of the large worldwide gatherings, my wife and I made plans to fly out to Kansas City to celebrate with her immediate family, and Peter in particular.

The morning before we were to fly out, we received news that Peter had been shot and killed while sitting in his car – an unintended victim of crossfire between rivals standing on either side.

Needless to say, our trip to Kansas City took on an entirely different meaning, as our celebration was tempered by mourning. I do not think I can express my feelings about all this in words here in this blog. However, on Friday – the day after Thanksgiving – I had time to sit alone with my thoughts for some time, and not surprisingly, I turned to music for release. I decided to write a composition to perform at Peter’s memorial service.

The idea started as a simple tune that I would play on the piano and embellish with improvisation in my usual manner. My model was Don Pullen’s Ode to Life, which is a jazz piece that incorporates improvisation but has a classical feel to the composed sections. Because I wished to be alone, I did not compose at the piano (which was in the dining room), but rather in silence with pencil and paper only, in the bedroom where Wendy and I were staying. While this is not my norm, it is not something I have no experience with, either – I composed away from the piano often when I was writing in a classical idiom as part of my degree.

Perhaps for these reasons, when the first few phrases came out of my pencil, I realized I was writing not a jazz tune at all, but a hymn. After writing the basics of the melody and harmony for the first section of the piece, I turned my attention to arranging it in traditional four-part chorale harmony. I think wrote a second section for the piece and arranged it similarly. At that point, I had a completed hymn, but not a clear idea of what I would do with it.

Since I was not at the piano, and I had my computer with me, I entered my hymn into Finale, the scoring software I have used for years, so I could hear it, edit it, and then print it out. At first, when I hit the playback button to listen to the results, it played using the default piano sound. But at some point I started thinking about what it would sound like if it were sung – even though I had not (and still have not) written any lyrics for this. So I changed the sound to a sample of a choir singing “oooh” and “aaah”. Although I can’t say the results were impressive in themselves, it immediately struck me that the piece really needed to be scored for some sort of instrumental ensemble. The most obvious choice seemed to be a straight rendering of the four-part SATB harmony into the instruments of the quartet: two violins, viola, and cello. I set this up in Finale, and then started considering how I might put together a quartet or even a small string section (with multiple players per part) to record this during the week between then and the memorial.

By the next day, however, it occurred to me that I really wanted to hear how it would sound with a full orchestra. I knew there was no way I could get an actual orchestra lined up to play it such short notice (and indeed, it would be difficult even with no time constraints). But I also know that Finale comes with some fairly high-quality orchestral samples – ones that are often used in film scoring. So I spent most of Saturday and Sunday working on an orchestral arrangement of my hymn.

What I ended up with is a pretty faithful rendering of the original SATB chorale harmonization, using the different colors of the orchestra to add variety, as opposed to actually creating new harmonies and so forth. Over the last few days since returning to Denver, I have continued to tweak this, and while I suspect I’ll continue to do in the future, I think this at a place where I would like to share it. So if you have not already clicked the link at the top of this entry, you can do so now.

The memorial service is Monday in Kansas City. I still have not decided if I am going to simply play this on the piano as per my initial plan, or use this recording, or use a recording of a real string quartet that I still plan to try to make between now and then. I may well decided to play it myself, since that in some ways is the most personal expression I can put forward at the service. As a composer, my orchestral arrangement is at least as personal to me as my own playing. But of course, this is not about my relationship to the music – it’s about expressing my feelings about Peter.

Peter, this is for you.

Inspiration

As a person involved in so many creative endeavors – music and art most obviously, but also photography, writing, and even my approach to cooking and other activities – the subject of “inspiration” comes up fairly often. As in, where does my inspiration come from. That is a difficult question to answer, but I would like to share a few thoughts on the matter.

My main occupation is music – specifically, jazz. One of the unique things about jazz is that, compared to other forms of music, one is almost constantly creating. Improvisation is the heart and soul of jazz. In a typical performance, probably 95% of what I play is improvised. This means that each time I play a gig – as I do usually a couple of nights a week on average – I am coming up with several hours’ worth of music I have basically never played before. Sure, I am building on foundations that have been laid down already, but most of the specific melodies I play really are created on the spur of the moment. I am accustomed to not waiting for “inspiration” to strike me as if this were an unusual event. I no more require “inspiration” in order to decide what note to play next than I do in order to decide when to take my next breath.

This is in fairly stark contrast to a classical musician practicing a piece over and over so he can perform it pretty much exactly the same way every time. But more importantly, it is also quite different from the image of, say, a writer staring at his typewriter for days on end waiting for a word or two to come out. I come closer to this situation when I am composing, as opposed to improvising, music. Although I know from experience that I can generally compose a tune any time I sit down and put my mind to it. I have not tended to do this very often, but for a while, when I had a regular weekly gig with my quartet, I was writing a tune a week.

For a long time, painting was somewhat similar for me. Virtually all my paintings are landscapes, and virtually all done on location (en plein air). I would make a commitment to myself or a friend or a group (such as a class I might be taking) to show up at a particular time and a particular place and paint whatever happened to present itself that day. I might wander around for a few minutes to find something I liked, and think some about the vantage point that would produce the best composition, how to frame the scene, and how I would approach the painting. But overall, the feeling was almost as automatic as improvising music: just about any time and any place would do, and I would find something to paint as surely as I would find a phrase to play when improvising in jazz.



A couple of weeks ago, however, I hit a point of temporary crisis. I had met a friend to paint at a location we had been to several times before. Very nice scenery, with a river, trees, some interesting old buildings – everything that would normally get me going.



On this occasion, though, I simply could not get inspired. I wandered about with my camera as I always do, taking “test” pictures of various subjects and checking them out on the screen to see if I thought they would make good paintings. Many shots looked perfectly usable, but the overall sense I had was, “been there, done that.”



The only two shots I took that excited me were shots that were almost totally unpaintable. Or at least, they could not easily be painted on location. The image at left depended on a quality of light that was not going to last but a minute. The image at right (below) depended on the length of my shadow, which was going to get shorter and shorter the longer I worked – plus the shadow of my easel would have become part of the picture. It would not have been impossible to work around these issues, but now that I had the photographs, I felt no need to go to that much trouble to recreate them as paintings.



I actually considered giving up for the day, as I had been walking in circles for over an hour. But instead, I decided to embrace the idea that inspiration is, or at least can be, important. I still clung to the belief that it should be possible to find something to be inspired by, but accepted that I might have to look harder to find it. In jazz, I always feel I am better off eschewing the obvious and instead going for the less common, but this was one of the first times that the same feeling came over me in painting. I finally got tired – if perhaps only for a moment – of doing essentially the same painting over and over.



In the end, I found something that inspired me – a patch of tall grass that appeared to me like bamboo. In order to really capture what fascinated me about the scene, I sat on the ground on squatted low to give me vantage point where I would be looking up at the top of the grass. This is the type of “unusual” viewpoint that I always admire in photography but seldom think about in painting.

I set up my easel on the ground, too, and painted from this same position. Here is what I ended up with:



The moral? I am not sure. Like I said, I just wanted to share some thoughts. I welcome any comments you may have!