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Wednesday, December 1, 2010

New big band chart: Upswing

Upswing will be premiered by the Calvert Hall Jazz Orchestra in Baltimore, Maryland on April 28, 2011.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Amazing Grace

I've just completed a new chart on Amazing Grace for the Hilton High School Jazz Ensemble in Hilton, New York. They will premiere it on February 4, 2011 at their annual "Day Of Jazz"... more about that as time draws near.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Original Works for Jazz Ensemble: Really Good Music

While most of my music may be purchased from me directly, my new compositions Flex Time and Praxis can both be purchased from www.reallygoodmusic.com. Please check out the selection of creative music on sale there.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Flex Time

Commissioned by the Hilton High School and Fairport High School Jazz Ensembles, premiered in 2010. Full score and parts may be purchased at http://www.reallygoodmusic.com.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Dear Band

Dear Band,

I wanted to let you know how much I appreciate the hard work you put into performing "Flex Time", and giving a very very good premiere on Friday. The first performance of a piece is a stressful time, especially when I am out in the audience and not conducting. I know every note of it, how it's "supposed to go". And hearing it played in front of an audience for the first time is kind of like letting an animal you've raised go into the wild... "well, there he goes, he's free."

But I realize that that's not your experience with the piece. "Flex Time", of course, is difficult to play. Yes, it is in odd meters, and yes, the rhythms are tricky, and yes, the tempo is up. However, any group with enough time can get those things together, and you are a capable ensemble. What is really a challenge for a group such as yourselves is to find the spirit of the piece, the emotion it communicates and the energy that needs to come out of it. We talked about that a little in the times I was there to work with you. Sometimes you will hear people say things like "music is the universal language" or something like that. It's not. Music is simply "language", which can be misunderstood to some and incomprehensible to others. As you all continue to mature as musicians, you will discover this to be true. It is important not just to recite the words correctly and in the right order, but to actually communicate. And as humans, we communicate in very subtle and nuanced ways. Music is one of the few non-verbal, non-visual languages that can be rich enough to communicate the subtleties of human existence - emotions, desires, needs. As a composer, I try to be hyper-aware of this at all times when I write music. As a craftsman, I try to write so that the music can be played with as much intuitive expression as possible, so you can focus on actually executing the chart. But there is a large degree of overlap, that place where you as the performer must be artists and poets as well. I can't write all of the emotional content of the piece. What I can't write (and what you so clearly don't hear in the midi sample of the piece I provided beforehand) is the expression that you, as ensemble and as soloists, must bring to the piece.

In jazz this is especially apparent because there is improvisation happening - there's a rhythm section, there are long solos, and the interpretation of the ensemble is much more flexible and subject to change from performance to performance than in traditional art music. All these things have to be working together to make this kind of music come alive. And it is difficult... actually, it is incredible that it can happen at all - especially for a large group of musicians, and especially for a young group of musicians.

And this is what I heard in this group on Friday that is so moving to me... that as challenging as "Flex Time" is in a technical sense, the band was able to get at some of the "human-ness" of it. In the shimmering bookends, the peculiar melody, the contrapuntal transition, the floating time in the bass solo, there was life in all these things and others. Sure, it could always get deeper, more polished... you will always look to improve this. And you will, in the next performance, on the next piece, you'll bring this musical experience with you. And so will I.

I also wanted to say that it was especially gratifying to hear my piece played after "Time For A Change", a piece which I performed many times with Hank. I know he would be pleased that his music continues to be performed, especially by young musicians, with such enthusiasm.

My very best wishes to you all, and I hope to work with you again in the future.

Sincerely,
Russell Scarbrough

Thursday, January 14, 2010

"Be more creative!"

Today I attended a rehearsal of a local high school jazz band, which is preparing a new piece I wrote for them. The piece, called "Flex Time", is all in odd meters, and I must say that it is technically pretty challenging for a young band. Yet the toughest part of playing the piece is that it is not clearly in any traditional jazz style. The standard publications for developing musicians avoid anything that is not directly derivative of something concrete - funk, which goes like this... swing, which goes like this..., latin, which goes etc. What style is "Flex Time"? I suppose among professionals we'd say "ECM feel", but that's still pretty ambiguous. There are significant shades of minimalism in it. The rhythm section, especially the drums, is very free, and kind of floats along throughout the whole piece. On the other hand, they are critical in telegraphing energy, and requires a great deal of musical intuition and creativity - not things an inexperienced band has usually developed from playing the published stuff. I often shout at the drummer while he's playing: "Be more creative!"

Yet they are doing a commendable job with it. The rhythm section is jelling. The horns, while struggling a bit with the "fast but relaxed and quiet" feel, are executing some details and getting into the subtleties. An overall shape is emerging, and the "story" of the piece is starting to come through. In some ways, I feel compositionally that it's one of the most successful things I've written, that I really met my goals and purpose for writing the piece. And I'm really enjoying hearing this high school band playing it... something I frankly never thought I'd ever say.

And the band director who commissioned it (actually directors, there are two) ought to be commended for asking for it, because they really aren't getting something they could have just ordered out of a catalog, if I may say so. Certainly they wanted something technically challenging but not out-of-reach for their bands, which "Flex Time" seems to deliver on. But I think what they will really take away from this piece is the understanding of how musical intuition and creative logic fit into playing a through-composed piece. There's a lot written out for them, yet there is so much that's not on the page that the piece really needs. It requires the musicians to be responsible for the overall character of the work, and to do so with authority - not just executing their parts properly.

I can tell by the way they interact with me at rehearsal that I'm very different from their band director, since I don't talk about technique so much or really rehearse parts. I talk about energy, shapes, sound, emotion. What this music is about. "Cover up the seams between these sections, flow more organically; telegraph the energy coming up here; much less intense, less urgent, relax." I hear the change in their playing as they begin to think about these things. Hopefully they'll take that intuition and creativity into other music they play. If they do, this music will have really contributed something valuable to their lives.