Usually if I am playing in public, I’m playing jazz on the piano, guitar, or accordion. I hardly ever have to play the exact notes of a piece—especially since there often aren’t exact notes to play, only chord changes. But on April 2, I will be performing a piece of mine called Four Cities with the wonderful violinist Teri Lazar. It is a four-movement suite for violin and piano that I wrote in 1997. It’s about 40 minutes long—and it is hard! I’ve been shedding for this concert for weeks already. I find it somewhat unnerving that Teri, because she is an excellent musician, will be expecting me to play precisely the notes I wrote. It is a reasonable expectation, to be sure. And if I were sitting in the audience, as I usually am when one of my pieces gets played, I would have the same expectation. But the prospect of sitting on the business side of the stage, playing a difficult piano part, and having the soloist fully prepared for me to nail it, is a little frightening. The movements are all named after cities: Fredericksburg, Virginia, where I spent my early years; Hollywood, California, where I’ve worked off and on for decades; Damariscotta, Maine, where my mom’s people are; and Memphis, Tennessee, the throbbing heart of American blues music…and a place I have never been. In some oblique way, this grouping makes perfect sense to me. Each of these places inspired a kind of sonic dreamscape—especially the one I’ve only dreamt about.
Last month, my jazz band, Chaise Lounge, celebrated the release of our eighth album: The Lock & the Key. There are eleven cuts on it: nine originals and two covers. It took just about a year to make, and we are quite proud of it. I’m not sure it is appropriate to pick out favorite tracks, but so what? I have them. One is “The Sweet Ride Home,” for which our singer, Marilyn Older, wrote a gorgeous lyric about the moments just after a wonderful date. It’s driven by the perfect groove from drummer Tommy Barrick. The melody is ghosted a fourth down by Joe Jackson’s trombone. And the tutti ensemble section in the middle is the perfect, full-on Chaise Lounge statement. Another fave: “The Earl.” Our sax player, Gary Gregg, routinely stuns our live audiences with his ultra-melodic solos, and we captured a hot one on this track, named for one of Gary’s saxophone heroes, Earl Bostic. And I especially love the last song on the record, “I Grew a Rose,” because we tried to get a very retro Harry Belafonte sound, and I think we hit the nail on the head. In concert, we sometimes use male backing vocals as comic relief, but on this cut we are nothing but sincere. The artwork for the album is by Adriana Cordero.
This project was fun: I wrote the score for an animated film that will play for visitors to the Welvaren Museum in Amsterdam. When I score a feature film, I leave the sound effects to the pros, but in this case I was hired to do both score and “sfx,” in filmmaker lingo. Since it was a cartoon, the sounds I had to find or make were cartoonish—shoveling sounds, ker-plops, big cannons, little fireworks. I can’t imagine doing this job before digital editing. Thank goodness for ProTools. I will never again take the “boing” in a Tom & Jerry episode for granted.
I recently had the pleasure of writing music for first-time filmmakers Caitlin Carroll and Brad Forder for their documentary on Washington DC’s murals, Painted City. It is an unusual look at the amazing artworks that appear on walls all over this beautiful city, as seen through the eyes of Perry Frank, a historian whose mission is to document as many of these as she can before they either self-destruct or are laid to waste via urban revitalization.
Two things made this a particularly fun project for me:
1. I got to use classic go-go grooves throughout the score. If you’re not familiar, go-go is a style of music unique to Washington DC that incorporates elements of funk, R&B and hip-hop. It hit its highest spot nationally with Chuck Brown’s 1978 hit “Bustin’ Loose,” but here in the DMV it’s still going strong.
2. I got to record Vince McCool, one of my favorite trumpet players. His playing is something of a throwback—he reminds me of Al Hirt, Jonah Jones and Louis Armstrong. I never miss a chance to record with him.