On Saturday, May 15, I will be premiering a new jazz ensemble, the Marc Sabatella Octet, at Dazzle (930 Lincoln, Denver). There will be shows at 7 and 9 PM, with a $12 cover ($8 for students at the 9 PM show). The band will feature Brad Goode (trumpet), Josh Quinlan (alto), Peter Sommer (tenor), Tom Ball (trombone), Bill Kopper (guitar), myself (piano), Drew Morell (bass), and Mike Marlier (drums). Additionally, several of the pieces will feature vocalist Wendy Fopeano. This an extremely special performance for me, and I’d like to take a few minutes to write about it.
The music for this show has been in the works for a long time. One could say it began with my composition Mystic Reverie, written in the late 1990’s as a tribute to the larger scale works of Charles Mingus. It combines fully composed chorale-like passages with sections for spirited improvisation. Although it has been performed occasionally in quartets and other smaller ensembles, I have always had in mind a larger setting for this, with Mingus’ and David Murray’s octets specifically serving as inspiration. Another composition from that same time period, “Venable”, is freer in structure but also episodic in nature, and I have always intended this to be played by a larger ensemble as well.
But the real motivator for putting together a regular working octet came when I went back to school in 2005 to get my Master’s degree in composition from the Lamont School of Music at DU. While studying with Dave Hanson, Eric Gunnison, and Lynn Baker, I had the opportunity to regularly work with and write for ensembles of seven to nine musicians as well as big bands. Mystic Reverie and Venable were among the existing compositions I was able to arrange for ensembles at DU, and several brand new compositions were created as well. I also studied classical counterpoint and orchestration with Bill Hill and Chris Malloy, and I wrote pieces that were performed by classical chamber groups and the Lamont Symphony Orchestra.
Most of the music I wrote during this period was performed once for a school concert or student recital and never heard again. After graduating from DU in 2007, I hoped to find another opportunity to present this music. At the time, though, I had a steady quartet gig at Denver’s famed El Chapultepec, and I was also writing music for this group. While some of the music written for larger ensembles at DU made the transition to the quartet repertoire, most did not.
After the El Chapultepec run ended, I turned my attention to forming a new ensemble of my own to perform the larger-scale music that I had been working on for the last decade. Although I had arranged music for ensembles of varying instrumentation at DU, I wanted to standardize on one configuration for this project. I settled on an octet consisting of trumpet, trombone, two saxophones (who double on other woodwinds), guitar, piano, bass, and drums. By using the guitar as one of the “front line” instruments, I am able to write five-part textures similar to those used in big band writing, and by including the guitar in the rhythm section, I can be freed from the piano when necessary to conduct – plus it gives me the possibility for different textures in the rhythm section. I also wished to feature vocals on some arrangements, since I had written more several songs for which I or my wife, jazz singer Wendy Fopeano, had written lyrics.
Very few of my existing arrangements from my days at DU exactly matched the instrumentation I chose for my new octet, so I had to spend some time reworking those charts. Big band arrangements in particular provided a real challenge, as I wished to preserve both the saxophone “soli” sections and the brass-dominated “shout” choruses, as well as the contrapuntal sections. This is difficult to achieve with only two saxophones and two brass instead of five and eight. Some of this music ends up being unusually demanding to play as result. The charts originally written for seven to nine pieces were more straightforward to arrange for the new octet, but I managed to work in a number of new passages and improvements suggested by my experiences with the original arrangements at DU.
In addition to the charts that began life as larger ensemble pieces at DU, some of the pieces originally written for the quartet at El Chapultepec have also been arranged for this octet, and a few pieces were newly conceived especially for this project.
So after a long journey, the music is finally ready for its debut at Dazzle. Of course, any composition is only as good as the musicians playing it, but the band I have assembled comprises some of the top players on each instrument. Trumpeter Brad Goode serves in multiples roles. During the big-band-style passages, his part alternates between what might be a typical lead trumpet role and a typical lead alto role, and of course he is the trumpet soloist as well. Luckily, Brad is one of the best in business at all of these. Josh Quinlan has the been the alto saxophonist of choice for several of the more creative big bands and other large ensembles in the area, and he has played regularly in smaller groups at El Chapultepec as well. Tenor saxophonist Peter Sommer was featured on my first two CD’s – the first recorded when Sommer was only months out of high school – but we have not had the opportunity to work together much in the last decade I am especially pleased to be reunited with Pete for this project. Tom Ball is one of the few improvising trombone players in the area capable of navigating the sort of demanding parts I wrote. On some pieces, Tom also plays euphonium. Guitarist Bill Kopper worked with me on Wendy Fopeano’s most recent recording, and as with Tom, Bill has the unenviable task of reading parts of a technical nature that players of his instrument seldom encounter in this type of music. Accompanying me in the rhythm section, Drew Morell has been one of my favorite bassists to work with for many years, and Mike Marlier is one of the tightest but hardest driving drummers around – exactly what is needed to hold an ensemble like this together. Featured vocalist Wendy Fopeano is one of Denver’s most expressive singers and is well-known as the host of a regular jazz show on KUVO for the last several years.
Some of the highlights of the concert will include:
Zone Row G – this was adapted from a big band arrangement written in tribute to several different musicians. The central theme of the piece is a “zone row” – a melody made out of a series of pitches arranged to form triads, based on an idea espoused by George Garzone – that is then cast into different harmonic and rhythmic contexts. Over the course of the piece, the “zone row” visits territory inspired by the textures of Maria Schneider, the contrapuntal writing of Fred Sturm, and the serialism of Fred Hess.
Fanfare and Fugue – this piece takes a fanfare by Charles Carter that I learned and grew to love as a clarinetist in the Florida State University Marching Chiefs, pairs it with a honest-to-goodness baroque-style fugue based on two themes found in Thelonious Monk’s “Brilliant Corners”, and opens it up for both fast-paced improvisation and a musical “conversation” reminiscent of duets between Charles Mingus and Eric Dolphy.
Obsession – this Dori Caymmi song popularized by Sarah Vaughan has long been of my favorites, but I have always been interested to hear it in a slightly different arrangement. This version is adapted from a big band arrangement I wrote at DU. It is faithful to the original song while hopefully “kicking it up a notch” in intensity. My arrangement is a feature for soprano saxophone and vocal.
As I Do – I composed this after graduating from DU but while teaching there (which I continue to do). I wrote it as a demonstration of the process of writing a larger scale piece, since I was giving my class an assignment to do the same. It is an essentially “positive” sounding composition that balances melodicism and intensity. It contains a number of inter-related themes and different harmonic contexts for improvisation.
Serving Notice – the bartender at El Chapultepec while I was playing there made no secret of the fact that he hated jazz and would rather be working almost anywhere else. We all loved him anyhow. When he announced he would be leaving (after something like ten years there), I wrote him a song with a hip-hop beat – which is what he preferred to jazz – and had Wendy Fopeano write lyrics on the subject of finally leaving a situation you have been wanting to leave for some time. The groove, melody, and lyrics really resonate with people when we perform this in small group settings, and I’m excited to now be able to present this tune with a “Chicago”-style horn arrangement. Oh, yeah – the bartender ended up changing his mind about leaving; he’s still working there today as far as I know.
Hymn For Peter – originally conceived as a simple 4-part chorale in honor of my brother-in-law who died tragically in 2008, the octet version combines a reverentially reflective solo piano rendition of the theme with a gospel-flavored tenor saxophone re-statement, adds room for improvisation, and concludes with a triumphant orchestration of the original chorale harmonization.
Down – while vacationing up in the mountains, I happened to share a lodge with folks attending a writing workshop, and on a whim I tossed out the suggestion that I might set some of their poetry to music while we were all there. One of the writers, Jennifer Phelps, took me up on this and submitted her poem “down (anything but red)”. By the evening I had turned it into a song. The octet version is based on an arrangement I did for my recital at DU.
Venable – this piece tells the musical story of a (real) backpacking trip through the mountains and an (imagined) midnight encounter with a bear. It is alternately majestic and heart-poundingly thrilling.
Mystic Reverie – the one that begat this whole project has always been a crowd favorite on the occasions when it has been performed in small-scale arrangements. The piece covers several different moods over its course, and the climax in which everyone in the audience is invited to sing along “like a drunken sailor” sends them home smiling.
My intent is to keep this octet together as a regular working ensemble – recording, writing new music, and adapting more existing pieces from my catalog. I hope to eventually expand into touring, bringing in guest artists, and more. But it all begins at Dazzle on Saturday, May 15, so mark your calendars!