Even though I helped raise three spectacular daughters, I have never been drawn to the idea of playing children’s concerts. But earlier this year, I was commissioned to write a new string quintet for a regular Takoma Park, Maryland, kiddie event called “Peanut Butter & Jam Sessions.” My first instinct was to write something harmonically and melodically simple. But aside from it being a boring task, I realized that it probably wouldn’t work for this concert. The “Pixar” model of bi-level sensibilities is what kids—and their parents—expect now. So in the end I wrote a pretty interesting piece that had enough surprises in it for a three-year-old, enough musical meat in it to hopefully be satisfying for the adults in the audience, and just enough of a technical challenge for the quintet. The Takoma Ensemble string quintet also performed the third movement of my Three Completely Workable Perpetual Motion Devices. What fun! The players did an outstanding job with both pieces, and I discovered something about children’s concerts that hadn’t occurred to me (or that I had forgotten): music has an instant visceral impact on kids. Just hearing live music makes them fall on the floor—rolling and laughing. I’ve had some great nights in my life, but I can’t remember hearing my work played for a more appreciative crowd. A big thank-you to Maestro Vicki Gau for making this happen, and to the string quintet who took the work so seriously, while clearly enjoying the day.
A few weeks ago, my cello concerto Noir was premiered by soloist Lawrence Leviton and the Central Wisconsin Symphony Orchestra. I wasn’t able to attend, but I heard the recordings and am proud and grateful the piece got such a fine welcome to the world. Lawrence did a stellar job, as did Maestro Pat Miles and the orchestra. (You can listen to a recording and view the score here.) For a composer, it’s never easy to get a new work premiered. Even harder: finding the second performance of a new piece. But I’d love to make that happen with this one.
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.