My orchestral music has been featured in seven children’s concerts over the past six months. In years past, this might have bothered me: I always like to imagine my listeners as sophisticates, grown-ups who during intermission sip martinis and maybe even (dare I say it) smoke cigarettes. But I’m beginning to come around. Recently, I went to hear the Capital City Symphony play my jaunty and nostalgic 12-minute piece My Own Personal Rocketship for an audience full of Washington, DC public elementary school students. It was an attentive if boisterous crew, and the piece got as great a reaction as I could have hoped for. Afterwards, the kids stuck around to learn more about the instruments from the players. At right, concert-master Robert Spates explains the intricacies of violin playing to a few interested third-graders…or should I say “future sophisticates.”
Sometimes a gig comes along that seems like it’s just about the money, but it rarely turns out to be in the end. This one was a vanity album project that came my way via master rock producer Jim Ebert. The client, Dave, was a man on a mission: to record an album of emotionally meaningful songs as a peace offering to a beloved family member. Dave would sing on the project, but he had zero thought of releasing the album commercially. It was simply a plea for connection through music. I got to arrange the pieces and then play piano in the studio with a bunch of top-flight rock session guys, including the remarkable guitarist Buddy Spier, drummer-to-the-stars Andy Hamburger, bassist Greg Watkins and a superstar horn section consisting of Al Williams on sax, Joe Jackson on trombone, and Kevin Burns on trumpet. With Dave’s emotions flowing through all the sessions, it turned out to be a very good rock recording and an unforgettable musical experience for me.
I live in a county (Montgomery County, Maryland) with a very large and diverse immigrant population. There are streets in Silver Spring where you can hear 20 languages spoken during a one-block sidewalk stroll. So when I was awarded a grant to compose a piece for spoken word on the subject of the immigrant experience here, I thought it would be easy to find personal stories. And it might have been, a couple of years ago. But the level of fear I encountered while interviewing people who had immigrated to this country was striking. Even among people with legal residency or citizenship, many told me they worried that bringing attention to their experiences might endanger them. I can’t say I blame them: We’ve seen plenty of headlines lately about federal authorities imprisoning and even deporting legal residents and naturalized citizens. In the end, I decided to focus my piece on the story of one man who made the terrifying journey from Guatemala and through the Sonoran desert as a child. The “score” for this piece is written for piano, guitar and cajón (rhumba box) along with various other hand percussion. I hope I can musically do justice to his story, and his courage.
Last week, I was in France for a wedding, and a side trip took me to the Loire Valley. While walking along the river in the charming town of Blois, I caught sight of two swans gliding upstream. The Loire has a swift and strong current, so I knew the swans had to be paddling furiously under the water’s surface, but up above it, they maintained a completely calm, beatific look. I thought of one of my favorite words, sprezzatura: the ability to make a difficult task look easy. And that put me in mind of one of my favorite trombone players, Joe Jackson, who is conveniently in my jazz band. Two months ago, Chaise Lounge played a concert with the Pan American Symphony Orchestra, and one of the pieces on the program was Astor Piazzolla’s “Oblivion,” with Joe playing the solo usually performed on violin. This beautiful, impossibly high lyrical piece would leave most trombone players in tears, but for Joe, it seemed effortless. Of course, I knew his “effortlessness” came from 30+ years of devoted attention to his craft. But the best players, like swans swimming gracefully upstream, can make you forget everything but that beautiful performance.