A Canadian in New York
On July 1rst (Canada Day!) I premiered my large scale work "A Canadian in New York: Suite for Large Classical/Jazz Ensemble" at the Prospect Park Bandshell as part of Celebrate Brooklyn. The title was obviously a slightly tongue-in-cheek homage to Gershwin's American in Paris, but the work was similar in other ways as well: I was really trying to create as sincere and seamless a hybrid as possible between the worlds of jazz and classical music. The performance was actually the culmination of a year of exciting musical investigations for me. I tend to be a "completist" in my research; I want to know as much about a subject as possible before I feel "qualified" to confidently depart from it, to contribute my own two cents to the picture. Consequentially, I studied a great deal of particularly 20th century orchestral works, attended NY Phil. rehearsals (the work was originally intended to be scored for full orchestra), studied chamber music scores, and also gave myself a crash course on the history of jazz-classical hybrid works, both from the classical angle (Rhapsody in Blue, Milhaud's La Creation du Monde, etc.) to the jazz (Third Stream, John Zorn, Frank Zappa, Hannibal's "African Portraits", Mingus' Epitaph, Butch Morris's conductions, etc., etc.) Of course, as always seems usual, once internalizing this stuff I realized that I had a firmer, intuitive grasp of what I wanted to do than I at first suspected, and so there was the inevitable "letting go" point where I just trusted my instincts and "went for it".
The resulting work was scored for "classical" string quartet (though in this case I used some very diverse players quite comfortable in the jazz world so I could be certain they'd grasp the feel of the piece - Nioka Workman on cello; Marlene Rice and Carlos Baptiste on violin and Linda Blanche on viola) plus Chris Howes on electric violin; Jack Walrath on trumpet; the great James Spaulding on alto sax and flute; Vincent Chancey (of Lester Bowie's Brass Fantasy) on French horn; J.D. Parran on baritone sax, plus a rhythm section of myself on piano; the incredible Ralph Peterson on drums; Ugonna Okego on acoustic bass; plus special guest Bobby Sanabria on percussion and David Gonzalez doing poetry.
It was quite an extended evening, as the premiere was preceded by a full hour of fellow Canadian Andy Milne's "Cosmic Dapp Theory", followed by Carribean-Canadian Austin Clarke reading from his book. By the time my piece began, in fact, we were way over schedule time-wise - I think I went on around 10:10 pm, long after the sun had set, and people were already trying to decide how they'd get back home - and the work ended up being about 85 minutes in length - over 3 times as long as the amount of music I was originally commissioned to write (!)
The work was in four movements, dealing with different aspects of my experiences as a Canadian living in New York these past 11 years. The first, "The City", attempted to conjure up in more literal terms the sounds of the city, from the sounds of traffic hustle and bustle, to bebop and funk riffs, to gentle walks in the park. It was the most extended and perhaps ambitious movement and lasted some 30 minutes. The form was roughly sonata form with a contrasting slow movement and lots of development, including an opening Bartokian string quartet texture built on the perfect 4th motives to follow introduced by David's poetry ("Listen to the sounds of...the City...") and some free, swinging sections featuring Spaulding. And I was thrilled to have my first chance to truly conduct a large group - I sat at the piano with my back directly to the audience, and with the musicians surrounding me in a semi-circle so I could conduct at the moment "conductions" (borrowing a chapter from the techniques of Butch Morris and David Murray in which background figures, tempos, even solo forms are indicated, on the fly, by the conductor's direction). Movement II was based on "Suite New York" from my solo piano album "....so far", and was more romantic in scope and mood, ultimately building on an ostinato-like chord progression as the basis for the solos. Mov. III was an homage to El Barrio, featuring the great Bobby Sanabria, as well as poetry from David, and was built around a 7/4 latin-oriented groove, with some pizzicato, fugue-like strings serving as intro and interlude. And the work ended on a more relaxed note, with "Brooklyn Lullaby" - my homage to the laid-back, family-oriented, tree-lined streets of my new home.
All in all, it was perhaps the greatest musical moment of my career (whether or not the audience agreed!- though the people who stayed til the end seemed very receptive to the work)- there is nothing, for example, to compare to the feeling of asking 14 musicians to play louder - LOUDER and actually hearing the enormity and intensity of the resulting sound (!) I truly hope that I can continue to develop in this direction by touring with this work hopefully in Canada, and by expanding this piece for full symphony orchestra, and by also creating new, hybrid works which explore new classical/jazz/"beyond" works down the line...