Thursday, December 22, 2016

Clarinet in Space

A beautiful, deserted train station resonates with the sound of a clarinet. I sent this as a birthday present to Lori Prentice, whom I haven't seen in more than thirty years. Now in her 90s, Lori was a supportive audience to some of the first original melodies I played on the clarinet, in the early 1970s on the steps of Camp Innisfree's lodge in northern Michigan.

Camp Innisfree was a charmed place, fed by fresh breezes off Lake Michigan, and bounded on other sides by forests and fields. The massive sand dune at Pyramid Point was just a short hike through the woods. By chance, I happened into a job as a counselor to highschoolers who would arrive in June. For six weeks away from their parents, they'd learn that with freedom comes responsibility. It's hard to imagine a more important lesson in life, or for any citizen of a democracy. Lake Michigan, with Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes just down the coast, stretched westward to the horizon, with glorious sunsets that were symphonic in scope and endless in variety. In case I hadn't learned elsewhere, that place taught me that nature is the greatest artist of them all, working magic with wind, water, sand and leaf.

Often at night, I'd sit with my clarinet on the steps of the lodge overlooking a broad field, and send notes out into the darkness, then listen for them to come back as echoes from a nearby hill, as if nature itself were sending back affirmation. Lori took to walking out on the grounds while I played, unseen, and like the hill would quietly offer encouragement when she saw me the next day.

As counselors, our job description was to "be yourself". The camp director, Gus Leinbach, would sign his communications with "Peace, love, joy". These are words that take a lifetime to understand. No one had ever asked me to be myself before. Not really knowing how, or having long forgotten, I taught sailing and organic gardening. A friend called me Farmer Fork, presiding over a vegetable garden in my bluejeans and t-shirt. We'd make runs with a pickup truck to pick up horse manure at a nearby farm. The squash grew a foot a day.

Kids told me I was a good listener. One camper put a complimentary spin on my quiet ways, telling me that "Still waters run deep." There were chess games in the lodge, and picture puzzles to puzzle over on rainy days. Ben Sorber, an educator from the Netherlands, would get us dancing to folk songs played on his accordion. But the deepest medicine and the most profound education came from the land itself, and the play of nature and the elements upon it.

A couple campers decided to make a movie and enlist other campers in the cast. They liked a melody I had come up with and used it in the movie. I thought it was my own, but later discovered it was John Coltrane's Equinox, which I'd heard on a record my brother had given me a year or two prior. The tune had worked its way down into me, then come back up as if it were my own. Years later, my unconscious learned how to digest heard music and reconfigure it in more original ways.

Three years I was a counselor there. The first two years, the kids used the freedom to explore their interests and creativity, and become fast friends with each other and with staff. The third year, the last for what was called the Innisfree Project, had a much different, disconcerting feel. The campers seemed uninterested in exploration. They wanted to party, and expected the staff not to mentor but to serve. That would have been 1975, and foretold for me the coming political shift in the country, as the 1960s faded and the 1980s stirred.

The camp had been a window into a world that might value what I have to give, and one camper that last year proved to be the window into the next cradle for my creativity. Sometimes I would jam with drummer John Hildebrandt in one of the camp cabins, and when the camp was over, he invited me to stop by rehearsals of the II-V-I Orchestra in Ann Arbor, my first step into the jazz scene.

Monday, December 12, 2016

SJE Performed at Nonprofit Fundraiser

Last week, the Sustainable Jazz Ensemble took the form of a duo, as pianist Phil Orr and I performed in the Duke Farms carriage house for the Women and Wildlife award ceremony. Each year, the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of NJ celebrates the work of three awardees devoted to wildlife conservation and education. It was an honor to perform for the event, and in such a beautiful setting. Former NJ governor Florio spoke to the group after our first set.

It's hard to say if this raptor would have listened to our music with rapt attention, as its caretaker, from the Mercer County Wildlife Center, took it to another room before the music started. The latin "raptus" means to seize and carry away, which is what music can do. That makes our band's goals similar to the raptor's, though in this case we were more like songbirds, offering background melodies for socializing.

This raptor brought its own dinner, while the humans used compostable plates and utensils to dine on salmon and other delicious offerings in another room.

That's Inspiration Honoree Martha Maxwell-Doyle on the left, Education HonoreeTanya Sulikowski in black, and CWF Board of Trustees member Bob Coleman on the right. Bob was doing environmental good deeds at Princeton's Church and Dwight headquarters before retiring recently. Not shown is Leadership Honoree Wendy Walsh. You can read about their work at this link. And my own personal anecdote about taking a baby screech owl to the Wildlife Center is here.

Thanks to the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of NJ for making our music part of their event!

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Memories of Sax Great Kenny Garrett From Detroit Days

Thanks to my west coast friend and musical colleague, Kalle Nemvalts, for sending me a photo of a 16 year old Kenny Garrett performing with us in the II-V-I Orchestra at the Earle in Ann Arbor, MI back in the 1980s. Kenny would go on to become one of the greats on alto sax. This weekend I'm headed to NY to hear him at the BlueNote with Chick Corea. I remember when he was trying to choose between going to college and hitting the road with the Duke Ellington orchestra. Big bands had long served as jazz's version of a university. Kenny chose that route, which led ultimately to a long association with Miles Davis, vaulting him into the highest ranks of the jazz world.

Back when he was in high school in Detroit, our paths would cross in David Swain's big band, playing nightclubs and society gigs in Ann Arbor and the Detroit area. He had a rich, round tone on the alto, but what most set him apart from everyone else was the thought, or pre-thought, that went into his improvisation. There was a calm and focus to his playing, a poise that is visible in the photo, communicated through his tone and the notes he chose. I remember him sitting next to me in the sax section, and when he stood up to take a solo, I could see his next phrase forming in his mind.

When a saxophonist improvises, there's a tendency to fill the empty space with sound, to pour notes into the void--that chorus or two allotted to you--and hope it all makes sense. Oftentimes what comes out is a repertoire of stock phrases that through practice have become engrained in mind and muscle memory. The avalanche of notes may convey some overall feeling and energy, may impress in some way, but their origin is more in habit than a welling up from heart and soul. Kenny wouldn't give in to that temptation to spill notes for notes' sake. If he wasn't sure what to play next, he'd pause a moment, like a speaker who has gone off script and chosen to speak directly to the audience from the heart.

Sitting to Kenny's right in the photo, in front of the drums, is Pete Klaver, a formidable and facile tenor sax player, who graduated from Ann Arbor's Community High, an alternative high school with a great jazz program that was also nurturing the New York-bound Mann brothers, Ned and David. One night, at a gig in Ypsilanti, MI, just down the street from where Dominoes Pizza was born, we were all warming up back stage, and Pete was playing John Coltrane's solo on Giant Steps, which he'd memorized verbatim. Kenny turned to me and quietly said that he liked to make up his own lines to the Giant Steps harmonies, and proceeded to play the most beautiful lines I'd ever heard, like water from a spring. That's when I became aware of the depth of Kenny Garrett's magic.

Kalle's in the back row, on trumpet, standing next to the bass player; and leader David Swain is in the lower right on baritone sax, with me on tenor to his right. At this link, you can learn that Kenny Garrett dedicated a song on a recent album to David, whose II-V-I Orchestra was a university of sorts, bringing so many of us together to play the original arrangements of Tadd Dameron, Frank Foster, Dizzy Gillespie and other legends. That exposure surely fed my own composing and arranging years later.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Our Keyboardist Phil Orr--a Video and Upcoming Gigs

Phil Orr, who plays keyboards with the Sustainable Jazz Ensemble, is a man of many collaborations. In addition to teaching at Rider University, he leads his own trio, and is accompanist for the founder of Grounds for Sculpture, J. Seward Johnson, during his Thursday singalongs--all fun and no cover. Check out upcoming performances in Princeton, Rats Restaurant Gazebo and elsewhere at Phil's website under the "news" tab.

Below, Phil and friend offer a whimsical performance of one of Wardell Gray's brilliant saxophone solos, later immortalized in lyrics. Gray's original recording can be found here. Part of my training on saxophone involved transcribing solos by Wardell Gray and other greats, to develop my ear and gain some sense of how they could navigate through the harmonic changes with such ease.


Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Outdoor Concert Friday Evening, June 17

Weather's looking great for our outdoor concert in downtown Princeton this Friday evening, June 17. In addition to our trio of sax/clarinet, keyboard and upright bass, we'll have special guest Lars Wendt on trombone and trumpet. A trombonist with the Princeton Symphony Orchestra, Lars is heavy into jazz as well, covering the range from serene harmony to gut bucket blues.

We'll be taking a journey in the key of D, greening the blues, waltzing for Ruth, testing the waters along Funky River, and will be on the prowl for some Ruum to Rumba.

Join us, 7-9pm, Hinds Plaza, just outside the library on Witherspoon Street. Thanks to the Princeton Public Library for sponsoring this event.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Original Compositions To Listen To Online

In the 1980s and '90s, I was musical director for a jazz/latin band originally called the Lunar Glee Club. We felt like a club, played with considerable glee, and sang with our instruments, but we eventually changed the name to Lunar Octet, to avoid any expectation that we'd actually launch into a group sing. It started as a composers' workshop, and developed into a working band playing all original music in Michigan and beyond. Some of the recordings, which I would say have aged very well, have been compiled on a website developed by drummer Jon Krosnick, and can be listened to by going to the following links.

Below are lists of tunes I contributed to the recordings. The first three are the 3rd, 4th, and 2nd I ever composed. What a treat to listen back to the talented musicians I had the pleasure of working with through those years.

Scroll down to these 1986 recordings by the 9-piece Ann Arbor-based Lunar Glee Club of

Caged Bird Swings
Sock Shadow Soup
Lefty Gets the Go

Scroll down to these 1994 recordings by the Lunar Octet.

Toote Suite
All In a Day's Dream
Flugel Tune
Bird of Paradox

Friday, May 27, 2016


June 17: Hinds Plaza, next to the Princeton Public Library, 7-9pm
Featuring the trio plus Lars Wendt on trombone and trumpet

June 18: Labyrinth Bookstore, 3-5pm, lower level
Original climate theater sketches interspersed with sustainable jazz, all hatched in Princeton, NJ.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Recent Gigs on the Green Side of Life

This spring, we've been playing our originals and jazz standards on the green side of life, be it a corporate headquarters, a land trust or a church.

On Earthday, April 22, Sustainable Jazz played in the shade of a serviceberry tree at Church and Dwight corporate headquarters in Princeton, for staff and various nonprofits assembled for the occasion. That's Jerry D'Anna on bass, Peter Lauffer on keyboard, and myself on camera. Church and Dwight, makers of Arm and Hammer products, is a big supporter of sustainability initiatives in Princeton.

On Mayday we played for a gala event at one of the east coast's premier land trusts, DR Greenway, where Wade R. Martin was given the 2016 Donald B. Jones Conservation Award. This marked the first time we've performed the Sustainable Jazz original repertoire with two horn players. Lars Wendt covered the range from serene harmony on flugelhorn to gut-bucket blues on trombone. Peter Lauffer laid down a groove on keyboard. Among Pete's credits are traveling internationally with alto-saxophone great, Richie Cole. (Thanks to Sarah Roberts for the photo.) 

Earlier in the year, we transformed ourselves into the Crescent City Jazz Band to play traditional New Orleans jazz at the annual Cajun-Creole Potluck Dinner at Trinity Church in Princeton. They liked our recipe for musical gumbo so much they booked us for the next four Mardi Gras. Phil Orr's in back, making it all happen on the grand piano.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Sustainable Jazz at Communiversity and a DR Greenway Gala

Spring has sprung. Some upcoming gigs:

COMMUNIVERSITY--Sunday, April 17, 2-2:30pm, Paul Robeson Stage
              Pianist Phil Orr and I will be dropped by solar powered helicopter into the midst of the Princeton Arts Council's Communiversity, for a half hour of locally sourced jazz. The stage is on Witherspoon Street, close to the Princeton Public Library and the Arts Council.

DR GREENWAY'S MAY DAY PICNIC FOR PRESERVATION--Sunday, May 1, 4-6pm, Johnson Education Center, 1 Preservation Place, Princeton
           Sustainable Jazz returns to DR Greenway's mission central to play as part of a gala event celebrating the preservation work of Wade R. Martin. Tickets available at this link.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Leap Day Clarinet Anniversary

This Leblanc clarinet came into my life 48 years ago on Leap Day, 1968. The salesman actually showed up at our house--at the end of a deadend street in a small Wisconsin town, surrounded by woods. The number 400 sticks in my mind for the price, a lot of money at that time.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Mardi Gras Potluck in Princeton This Tuesday, Feb. 9

The Sustainable Jazz Ensemble will be transformed into the Crescent City Jazz Band this Tuesday, Feb. 9, at 6pm. Though this annual Cajun-Creole Potluck Dinner is hosted by Trinity Church in Princeton, it is open to the public, but be sure to sign up and bring a homemade dish. Read carefully the info below, and follow the link to sign up.

6pm at Trinity Church, 33 Mercer
(leading off with blessing from Paul Jeanes, Trinity Church rector)
Music and food at 6:30!
Church volunteers will supply the rice, grits, bread and Bananas Foster.

Your price of admission: Bring a homemade dish to serve 10.

Needed are big green salads, cabbage slaw and fruit salads and vegetables, in addition to main dishes and favorite libations. Think Red Beans with Sausage, Étouffée, Jambalaya, Gumbo, and Grilled Sausages with Peppers and Onions.