I spend most of my work days writing and recording music, with some work nights devoted to playing and singing. But with my musical-in-progress, 19: The Musical, I have fallen into the role of music director. And since the show is still in the workshop phase—I and my creative partners, lyricist Jennifer Schwed and playwright Doug Bradshaw, are hashing out the script right now—my piano and I constitute the whole orchestra when we perform. That’s pretty straightforward on the ensemble numbers, but when it comes to the solos, things are more fluid. The singer and I might exchange leading and following roles—often within the span of a measure. It makes me remember how much I love the give-and-take of accompanying, the gentle, unspoken flow of tension and release, crescendo and diminuendo, accelerando and ritard, all communicated with the most subtle of gestures. Soprano Millicent Scarlett plays the crusading journalist Ida B. Wells, and she has two solo songs where we are so in sync that it sometimes feels like we are breathing each other’s breaths. In the rest of life, I rarely find it satisfying to completely subsume myself in another’s effort. Ego too often gets in the way. But when accompanying a singer, the melding of mind and purpose is the perfect outcome. Ego dissolves and only music remains.
I just finished scoring a presentation film for the Everglades Foundation that taught me a lesson in the value of leverage. This foundation is working to solve an environmental catastrophe: Florida’s Everglades are being destroyed by algae, fed by the run-off from fertilizers flowing into the watershed. It is a far larger problem than this tiny foundation could ever hope to fix using known methods—the cost would run into the billions of dollars. So instead, they offered a $10 million prize called The Water Prize to anyone who could find an innovative and affordable alternate solution. Groups of scientists from all over the world began approaching the problem from many angles. And the amazing thing is, I really think that it is going to work! This little film only covers the beginning of this process, but there is more. I was proud to contribute a few hopeful musical themes to this effort. I can’t wait to see how it ends.
On Saturday April 6, my doughty jazz band,Chaise Lounge, will head out to Washington, Virginia, a tiny town with a population of 127 at last count. Despite its size, this village in Virginia’s horse country has a wonderful music venue: The Little Washington Theatre. Somehow the theater’s owner, Nancy Raines, always manages to attract a discerning, sophisticated audience to fill this gem of a performance space. (Even the children, who get cut-rate tickets, are sophisticated!) For the band, there is a Brigadoon-like quality to playing there, since the crowd tends to outnumber the townsfolk. Where do they come from? Where do they go? If you’re in the region this weekend and up for helping me solve this mystery, come out and see us—and make sure to say hello.
I have started work on a new documentary about the Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas. It is called Clarence Thomas: In His Own Words. Filmmaker Michael Pack got an unprecedented chance to interview the laconic justice for 30 hours, and at this point I can say that I have heard Thomas speak more than almost anyone else in America. The film is still in its early stages, but I have ready written themes for much of it. Without giving anything away, I can say that Thomas’s origin story from Pinpoint, Georgia, is an amazing picture of racism and poverty in mid-century America.