Why Help Others?

The air has been thick with “shoulda-been” birthdays, with Ana Grace’s 8th birth anniversary last weekend and my aunt Margie’s 73rd birth anniversary today. On Ana’s birthday a playground was dedicated in her name at Elizabeth Park in Hartford, and while the weather was uninviting, people flocked out to be there and I didn’t see a single person leave. Meanwhile, this weekend I will be celebrating Margie’s life and the music it inspired on Ripples in Baltimore to an audience of her devoted friends and family. Through it all, I can’t stop thinking about the spirit of human connectedness.

I am, for the second time, teaching Music of the 1960s at Choate Rosemary Hall this term, and yesterday was when I introduced “protest music” and, correspondingly, the very notion of protest and what conditions people in the 1960s had to endure that might have been cause for protest. For most of the class I was provocatively playing devil’s advocate. “Why,” I asked, “should someone like ME care about the plight of African-Americans? I’M not black, and I never will be.” Throughout the discussion I got some feedback, including one student pointing out rather articulately that the protection of self-interest is valid from a primitive standpoint but is unsustainable in the long-term. That said, the students were unusually quiet overall. Maybe it’s because the conversation was making them uncomfortable, maybe they had never thought about this stuff or maybe I was just doing a lousy job of provoking critical and ethical thinking.

Finally, with less than five minutes to go, and after listening to several songs by the SNCC Freedom Singers (“This Little Light,” “Certainly Lord” and “Dog Dog,” for those keeping score at home) I asked one more time why people should care about the oppression of groups to which they don’t belong. A girl who is usually quiet in class spoke up, forehead wrinkled, and said “because it’s WRONG.” Amen, amen.

At that point I took off the actor/devil’s advocate hat and got serious. It was, after all, after discussing similar issues the first time I taught this course that I walked downstairs and learned of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. While that tragedy is never far from my mind, the ribbon cutting at the playground put me in a particularly raw place.

So I told my students that while I don’t know any of their economic circumstances, their very presence at an institution like that represents privilege and opportunity. I told them about Sandy Hook and the little girl who I still can’t believe I’ll never see again and about how even in purportedly privileged communities, nobody is entirely immune to bad things. I said there are two responses to that: one is to simply build a thicker fence to increase the illusion of full insulation from harm and the other is to use whatever privilege and opportunity you have to fully participate in making the world a better place. I was glad I saved that for the end of class, because after that spiel (which lasted all of maybe two minutes) I was literally shaking and on the verge of tears. I remained seated and kept cool as the students left, but I essentially had to stagger through the next couple hours of teaching (note to those students – sorry ‘bout that!).

As such, it feels just right to be going to celebrate Margie’s life this weekend, though it goes without saying that I would much rather be visiting her instead. She and my uncle Tom (who thankfully will be sharing in the festivities) were tremendous, if extremely unassuming, role models during my formative years. Role models for caring even when one could make the case they didn’t “need” to. Margie was successful and lived comfortably but had no illusion of being above it all. Her own medical issues certainly could have played a role, but from my observation that only added an area of focus to her already-honed sense of broader responsibility.

I have ranted before and will surely rant again about how we are all one and how when you look beyond the most specific details it is clear that the adversity with which we all cope is a force that unites us. If others are suffering, why shouldn’t we ignore it? If the opportunity to create a more compassionate world exists but it requires effort or sacrifice on our part, why shouldn’t we look away? Well, as my astute student observed, because it’s wrong. That’s reason enough, isn’t it?

Top 10 Favorite Isley Brothers Tracks

I love the Isley Brothers, and their place in my heart is as unique as their place in music history. If superlatively great R&B singer Ronald Isley and his great backing singer brothers O’Kelly and Rudolph had retired after producing “Shout,” “Twist and Shout,” “This Old Heart of Mine” and “It’s Your Thing,” they would have been borderline Rock and Roll Hall of Famers and even those songs alone represent a great stylistic diversity. But they didn’t retire. Instead, they added the younger generation of guitarist Ernie (perhaps the most direct inheritor of Jimi Hendrix’s mantle, both stylistically and due to the direct mentorship that occurred when Jimi was a member of the band and Ernie was a kid), bassist Marvin and keyboardist Chris Jasper (a brother-in-law, but that’s cool too). This began the 3+3 era and spawned all sorts of other classics like “That Lady” and “For the Love of You.”

You’ll notice that none of the above-referenced songs are even on this list. That’s partly to give space to some of their other great songs and because there are simply so many of them that 10 is a very small number! I’m hard pressed to think of many other artists who’ve produced strong work with such a diversity of sounds and a consistent evolution over such a long period of time. I don’t love all their stuff, but I’m glad for all of it, as the diversity is central to what makes them so awesome.

1 ) “Harvest for the World” from Harvest for the World

There are a few songs that I can listen to over and over and still consider to be perfect, and this is one of them. Of course Ronald’s lead vocals are passionate, as they always are, but on top of that the chord progression is rich, the groove simmers and the lyrics walk that difficult tightrope where they’re concerned, utopian and literate all at the same time.

2 ) “Fire and Rain” from Givin’ It Back

This record introduced a formula where the often-covered Isley Brothers gave their own takes on then-contemporary rock songs. Though there were several hits among this initial batch of covers (notably “Love the One You’re With,” where on the way out of the bridge Ronald nails the part that is an organ glissando on the Steven Stills original) and a chilling medley of Neil Young’s “Ohio” and Jimi Hendrix’s “Machine Gun,” this one is my all-time favorite. The gentle pathos of the James Taylor original boils over with passion via Ronald’s vocals and the amazing groove.

3 ) “Take Me In Your Arms (Rock Me)” from various compilations (issued as a single on Motown)

The Isleys’ relatively short Motown tenure was, by all accounts, somewhat frustrating, as they never became an “A-list” act. Maybe that’s not so bad insofar as it spurred them to focus on building their own T-Neck label. In the meantime, though, the Hitsville USA assembly line produced some good stuff for them, including this definitive rendition of a song better known for the similarly produced Motown hit version by Kim Weston (and, to rock fans, for the Doobie Brothers’ 1970s cover).

4 ) “Take Me to the Next Phase” from Showdown

I’m not crazy about the fake audience sounds, BUT they could overdub the sound of porpoises here and I’d still listen over and over again for this groove. The thick bass lines fusing Marvin Isley’s great bass and Chris Jasper’s synth make for a bottom end rivaled in the 1970s maybe only by Parliament’s “Flashlight.”

5 ) “Summer Breeze” from 3+3

This is another one of the 1970s cover songs that they did so expertly. I like Seals and Crofts as much as the next guy (assuming, I suppose that the next guy is neither Seals nor Crofts) but the Isleys really make it their own and, notably, this is one of Ernie Isley’s most stank-face-inducing guitar solos on record.

6 ) “Move Over and Let Me Dance” (issued on the It’s Your Thing compilation)

Oh yeah, that Hendrix guy. You might have an easier time finding “Testify (Part 1 & 2),” though the Hendrix style is less distinct there. This live bootleg, meanwhile, shows how the Hendrix guitar style fit into their mid-1960s high-octane R&B groove.

7 ) “Ballad for the Fallen Soldier” from Between the Sheets

Yes, this 1983 album is best known for its title track, one of the smuttiest hit songs of the 1980s (and pretty awesome if that’s what you’re into). This track, though, shows that their nuanced songwriting and social conscience had hardly exited. Ronald’s passionate lead vocals and Ernie’s edgy (and, when the solo comes around, searing) guitar dominate.

8 ) “Fight the Power (Part 1 & 2)” from The Heat Is On

This is a wonderfully hard-edged song both musically and lyrically. I’m not sure half the time when I listen whether I should be shaking my fist or my booty, but one wonderful thing about these guys is that the two aren’t mutually exclusive. This song gets extra props for putting all three older brothers in the forefront on the vocals.

9 ) “Nobody But Me” (1962 single)

As a kid I saw George Thorogood do this song on MTV and thought it was very cool. Then some years later I heard the 1968 hit version by the Human Beinz and felt like I had become hip and educated by discovering the source. Still more years later I heard the Isleys’ original version and my goodness is it awesome. As much as I love “Shout” and “Twist and Shout,” this is still my favorite early-years Isley Brothers recording, even though it strangely wasn’t a hit for them.

10 ) “Ernie’s Jam” from Eternal

I’m of two minds on the material that the Isley Brothers (which is to say, really, Ronald, Ernie and some producers) produced in the new millennium. It’s not really my aesthetic, I miss the other four, and some of the lyrics are downright tawdry in a way that (to me) is less endearing than some of their earlier work. On the other hand, bravo to them for remaining relevant, and as you can hear here, Ronald can still sing and Ernie can still play. This is the requisite Ernie-blows “slow jam,” in place of other songs like “Voyage to Atlantis” and “It’s Too Late” that nearly made this list.

Honorable Mention: “Caravan of Love” by Isley-Jasper-Isley

Because I’m often a stickler for the literal, I can’t include this song in the above list since technically it wasn’t issued under the name “Isley Brothers.” But the younger 3 of the 3+3 really knocked it out of the park on this Jasper composition, one of the great universal brotherhood songs of a decade that (save for star-studded things like “We Are the World”) had far too little of that.

Top 10 Favorite “Piano Trio Plus” Tracks

Or maybe “Augmented Piano Trio?” I don’t know what to call it, really, but the Trio plus Chamber-Ensemble on my Ripples album have evoked a lot of questions about the inspiration and methodology behind that music. The hierarchy I had in mind is difficult to articulate. It’s not really “octet music” in the sense of the piano, bass and drums being a rhythm section. Neither, though, is the work of the rest of the ensemble purely decorative window-dressing. Essentially, the trio is the central unit with the rest of the musicians playing a supporting role, but a (hopefully) well-integrated and important one.

As such, I have had cause to think about the work that has inspired me most in that vein. For this list I’ve limited myself strictly to piano trios augmented by at least three other musicians. I have left out tracks in which the other instruments don’t play much (the Cedar Walton/Art Blakey “That Old Feeling,” for example, as much as I love the moments when the horns kick in) and have also left out music in which there are strings that could disappear without major impact (as much as I love Phineas Newborn, Jr.’s While My Lady Sleeps album, the strings aren’t entirely essential). I have also left out anything in which members of the “supporting” ensemble become featured soloists, rendering the trio a rhythm section – there’s nothing wrong with that, but at that point we’ve got apples and oranges.

Without further ado:

1 ) Herbie Hancock “Riot” (from Speak Like a Child; Trio: Herbie, Ron Carter, Mickey Roker; arranger Hancock)

I suspect Thad Jones (who plays on this track) had a hand in the orchestrating, whether in a hands-on way or simply through his influence. The main point, though, is that the trio plays with incredible swing and improvisational flexibility while the 3-piece wind section weaves in and out with gorgeous depth of color and a deep level of rhythmic integration that blurs the lines between improvisation and scoring.

2 ) McCoy Tyner “Song of the New World” (from Song of the New World; Trio: McCoy, Juney Booth, Alphonse Mouzoun; arranger William Fischer)

The sheer level of power here debunks the notion that “orchestral” instruments inherently serve to lighten the mood. This one was chosen over “the Divine Love” in a neck-and-neck race simply because of a slightly more significant integration of the ensemble textures into the fabric of McCoy’s improvisation. Likewise, his brilliant Fly With the Wind album features Hubert Laws soloing on flute. The rules is the rules.

3 ) Renee Rosnes “Dear Old Stockholm” (from Without Words; Trio: Renee, Buster Williams, Billy Drummond; arranger Bob Freedman)

I heard this album in college and it just knocked me out – I urge you to dig it up. I’ve always been a fan of Renee’s playing and the integration and rhythmic integrity of the “classical” instruments here provided me with my first light bulb of how organic “jazz and strings” could be.

4 ) Bill Evans “Blue Interlude” (from With Symphony Orchestra; Trio: Bill, Chuck Israels, Grady Tate; arranger Claus Ogerman)

Thanks to the prodding of my Wesleyan colleague Neely Bruce, I have actually done numerous jazz arrangements of Chopin material, which has no shortage of soulful qualities. But none of them sound as good as this (though maybe they would if Bill Evans were playing them?). It’s challenging to get lush and soulful in the same package, but Evans’ trio and Ogerman succeed here.

5 ) Abdullah Ibrahim “Damara Blue” (from African Symphony; Trio: Abdullah, Marcus McLaurine, George Grey; arranger Daniel Schnyder)

I’ve long been a fan of the work Abdullah Ibrahim (formerly Dollar Brand), back to his work with the South African group the Jazz Epistles in the early 1960s. As such I picked up and enjoyed this delightful album, not realizing until after several listens that it was orchestrated by the multi-talented Daniel Schnyder, whose association with Michael Mossman in the 1990s allowed me to both hear him play and spend a short but mind-blowing period of composition study with him. He is a seriously advanced musician, so it’s all the more admirable that his writing here never overwhelms the elegance of Ibrahim’s trio.

6 ) Ahmad Jamal “Pittsburgh” from (Pittsburgh; Trio: Ahmad, James Cammack, David Bowler; arranger Richard Evans)

Ahmad Jamal is no stranger to a) long-term trios or b) augmenting and blending them with larger ensembles. I could have easily picked one of his 1959 recordings with his well-loved trio (with Israel Crosby and Vernell Fournier) plus strings or one of his 1960s recordings with his highly underrated trio of that era (with Jamil Nasser and Frank Gant) plus voices. Instead, though, I picked the energetic late-1980s work of another established Jamal trio (this one lasted for years, and his relationship with bassist Cammack, on recordings alone, went on for another twenty years after this) with the well-integrated work of the versatile Richard Evans, best known to many for his work with another trio (that of Ramsey Lewis) and whose work with Ahmad goes back to the 1962 album Macanudo.

7 ) Ron Carter “Patchouli” (from Peg Leg; Trio: Kenny Barron, Ron, Ben Riley; arranger Bob Freedman)

It would take a lot for this trio to get messed up, and there is no messing-up in Bob Freedman’s arrangements. He has done a lot of great orchestrations for Ron’s projects and I only later realized that he was the arranger behind the Renee Rosnes album above. I’ll admit I’m almost cheating here, as the rest of the album features a larger rhythm section with Buster Williams on bass and Ron on piccolo bass, but this track has Ron down low.

8 ) Hampton Hawes “How Are Things In Giocca Morra?” (from Plays Movie Musicals; Trio: Hamp, Bob West, Larry Bunker; arranger Billy Byers)

This one took me a couple listens, as the arrangements of Billy Byers (who I tend to think of as more of a big band writer) on this album are a bit syrupy. But late 60s Hampton Hawes records have a great edge to them that on this track cuts through (and ultimately is enhanced by) the sweetness.

9 ) Alice Coltrane “Sri Rama Ohnedaruth” (from Lord of Lords; Trio: Alice, Charlie Haden, Ben Riley; arranger Coltrane)

Like Alice herself, this one is difficult to categorize or to compare to much else in jazz history. There are moments that are downright Western classical sounding and moments that are full-on Alice Coltrane rubato trio thrashing. Spend the 6 minutes to check it out and come up with your own adjectives if you must.

10 ) Monk “Reflections” (from The Composer; Trio: Monk, Larry Gales, Ben Riley; arranger Oliver Nelson)

This album took a lot of criticism, with some saying that Nelson’s arrangements didn’t entirely fit into the spirit of Monk. I don’t know if I agree, but I will say that to my ears this particular performance of one of Monk’s loveliest ballads is lush without losing any of its Monk-ness.

the Cast of “Ripples” Part 5: Noah Baerman Trio

“I didn’t realize you could still do that”

-          Kate, after my first gig with Henry Lugo and Vinnie Sperrazza

As a musician, it is a treat whenever the opportunity arises to play with someone who brings out your best. It is, however, a rare and special confluence when you can play with someone who brings out a “best” that you otherwise wouldn’t have even known was in there. So it has gone for ten years now with the members of my Trio, Henry Lugo and Vinnie Sperrazza.

In the fall of 2002 I played for the first time with Henry. I had resurrected my jazz performance career after a few dark years of physical uncertainty (would I be able to keep playing? If so, through how much pain?) and geographic isolation (CT ain’t that remote, but it felt that way at the time). I’d begun playing extremely low-pressure trio gigs (mostly Sunday brunches at Middletown’s It’s Only Natural Restaurant) with the bassist Tyler Goodwin and the drummer George Mastrogiannis, both music students at the time. These gigs were fun and provided me with some much-needed momentum and, for that matter, hope.

When Tyler left for grad school, I went through a number of bassists, some of them very much works in progress, some of them more solid (big ups to Nick Tardif and Sean McClowry) and some of them highly professional but comparatively unavailable (it was great to play with my old pal Bob Hart once in a while, but coming from NY or NJ for a little brunch gig was not often feasible). Then for one gig George suggested Henry Lugo. My expectations were extremely low, simply because other such suggestions had not always worked out so well. To top it off, this was the first gig at a new venue and all my keyboard gear was stolen days beforehand, so I was going to be playing on a crappy synthesizer through an underpowered amp on a borrowed keyboard stand. I was prepared to go through the motions, but it wound up being one of the most fortuitous gigs of my life. Tune after tune the bass playing was both rock-solid and right in the wheelhouse of my personal bass-playing preferences. His sound was huge too, though that didn’t hit me immediately because I didn’t realize at the time how little he was using the amp. It also didn’t hit me immediately (how could it, after all?) that music aside, this was the genesis of one of the most solid and nourishing friendships I would ever experience. Thanks, broseph.

Fast forward to early 2004, and I had a gig in NJ, my first there in four years, after having it be my home base musically and otherwise for most of the ‘90s. George was unavailable as well as being in the midst of a transition away from jazz drumming as a primary focal point. My old pal Sunny Jain (himself semi-knowingly planting the seeds of what would become the amazing band Red Baraat) was unavailable, so I figured I’d take a chance and call Vinnie. I’d met Vinnie in 1998 when I was finishing up grad school at Rutgers and he, as a high school senior, came to audition. I was pretty involved in interacting with (and, usually, running jam sessions for) auditioning students, and always kept my poker face on . . . but this was the one time that I “broke character” and said “whoa, you sound GREAT and demanded contact information. I kept in touch a bit with him and with his dad, Vince, himself a drummer and all-around swell guy who would bring Vinnie to come listen and sit in when my band at the time would play in Syracuse (a not insignificant hike from their home in Utica). Through Vince and through perusing the interweb, I knew that Vinnie was playing a fair amount as a sideman with James Williams. Given my love for James and his music, this was about as strong a seal of approval as I could ask for, so I asked him to do the gig.

As with Henry (and buoyed by the shared compatibility among the three of us), I was immediately taken aback that night (I don’t even remember the name of the place!) both by his skill level and by the compatibility. The funny thing is that as Vinnie has become prolific both as a sideman and as a bandleader (click here to check out more of his stuff) I have seen the serendipity of our partnership. Part of that is simply catching him before he became less accessible, and part of that is stylistic, in that he’s so versatile that I seldom hear him doing in other bands (including his own) the specific things that my music demands and that he delivers so authoritatively.

But that night, all I knew was that I was experiencing a musical rebirth due to the synergy of playing with Henry and Vinnie. My wife’s comment from the beginning of this post was true for me too – things that I literally thought to be permanently beyond me on a basic physical level were flowing out. I felt like I could go anywhere rhythmically or harmonically and be lifted up and carried along like a surfer catching a great wave. And if I didn’t need to take it anywhere “challenging,” the music would be soulful and in that sweet spot of intense-yet-tasteful. Rather than being bored by the relative stasis of ballads, they put their souls into them. Rather than eye-rolling the potentially generic nature of a medium-tempo blues, they play like the groove is the most immediate thing in the universe at that moment. When we play my music I know they’ll give it precisely the care it needs. When we play the most hackneyed standards, they breathe life into them, so much so that I will sometimes purposely call the tunes with which I struggle the most and/or am the most sick of, just to continue challenging that track record.

They’ve played on my Soul Force, Bliss and Know Thyself albums (not to mention Playdate, the cooperative group of which we are all members) and it was a real no-brainer to have them tackle some of the challenging material on Ripples. They didn’t get a ton of solo space (one song apiece) and didn’t let their egos enter into any of that. While it’s nice to play with other people sometimes, it’s also remarkable how little wanderlust I have with this group. That’s a blessing in and of itself.

Hooray for the Healers

When I took a headlong tumble into the pavement in early November and came down hard on my right hand, it was scary and painful but I did not despair. I have, after all, been down the roads of injury, fear and uncertainty many times by this point and yet I keep bouncing back – not unscathed, necessarily, but bouncing back nonetheless. I owe much of that to the fact that by repeated good fortune, I have had a stream of potent healers of all shapes and sizes in my life . . . and, I suppose, the good sense to trust them. And we’re mostly not talking about healers in the New Age sense, although there’s nothing wrong with that either. The healers I refer to here are people with the courage and caring and compassion and commitment (stop me before I come up with more words beginning with “c”) to identify someone struggling and reach out to help.

I still vividly remember the day that I walked into Caryl Johnson’s office and sat down at her piano. I was a freshman in college and had seen my 6 hour/day practice sessions devolve into wrist pain that shot through my arms when I lifted my bag or a tray at the dining hall. Caryl matter-of-factly checked out my hands and my piano technique, setting me on a path of rehab for the former and insisting that I work with a classical teacher for the latter. Over the next several months, I built my strength up (I almost said “back,” but in hindsight it had never really been there in the first place) and rescued my career, and Caryl remained my go-to person for injury rehab and general hand-conditioning thereafter.

The demand that I find a classical teacher led me to the late Wanda Maximilien. She was willing to work with me even though I showed little interest in classical piano, working with me on the focal point of building my technique. As we succeeded with combating my physical fragility, the focal point began to shift to other facets of fragility; she knew I needed a lot more than improved posture. Sometimes at the end of a semester she’d say “what grade do YOU think you deserve?” I would answer B-plus or thereabouts (if I was really delivering the goods, after all, she wouldn’t be asking), but GPA be damned, I was getting other priceless things.

Most notably, perhaps, I still vividly remember the day that she looked me dead in the eye and said that I should see a therapist. She went to her desk, took out a pad, wrote down the phone number for the clinic on campus, and sent me home to call and make an appointment. Of course, I couldn’t POSSIBLY see a therapist . . . it would mean I was broken and weak and possibly even in possession of inner demons that would reveal me to be despicable, shameful and fundamentally unlovable. And of course I went home and obeyed and called and within days was seeing Lauren, a graduate student in psychology. While I still wasn’t eager to announce that I was “in therapy,” that safe forum for communication, growth and self-study became a lifeline, twice a week for the next three years.

I still vividly remember the day when I was 22 Lauren informed me that our relationship would soon be wrapping up. She was moving on to the next stage of her studies, and the clinic had strict rules whereby I could no longer be her client. As I panicked over how I would be able to hold my sh** together or remember what she had taught me without her there to remind me, she reassured me that I had been integrating those lessons all along and they would be with me forever. Sounded like a steaming pile of BS to me, but what choice did I have except to accept it? All these years later I can probably count on one hand the number of specific, concrete wisdom-pearls that I can trace back to the hundreds of hours I spent there, and yet she was ultimately right – it’s all in there.

There have been more, but I look back at these three women as a sort of Holy Trinity of right-place-right-time healers in my life, which is particularly striking given that I can’t really cite a point-by-point method that any of them took in helping me. There are certainly tangible things I can trace back to them. If in the minutes before I play the piano, you see me doing funny-looking Tai Chi-based warm-up exercises (without which I can’t play more than a few minutes without pain), thank Caryl. If when I play you think my posture is good, thank Maxe, God rest her incredible soul.

Indeed, I think the most potent thing they each gave me was hope. For me, that hope had to come through their diverse areas of expertise as opposed to “chin up, buckaroo.” I got to see Caryl in the aftermath of my recent injury (a very shiny silver lining) and recount to her that in the face of the many injuries in the past, her wisdom and expertise were invaluable, but so was the resulting sense of calm in knowing that I would ultimately be “okay” and that she would make sure to guide me to that outcome. The end of my relationship with Lauren was hardly the end of my time in therapy, yet I will always look back to my work with her as the genesis of having hope that I could eventually feel okay.

When I composed “The Healer” in 1997, it was inspired by my sister Alison, who had first introduced me to things like meditation, herbal medicine and therapeutic bodywork. The tune has been central to my repertoire since then, and its meaning has evolved into an expression of gratitude for all those upon whom we depend for support, strength and, yes, healing. Watching people step up in the face of serious adversity (as I have seen vividly in the wake of the 12/14/12 Sandy Hook shootings, but as is sadly necessary all the world ‘round) has galvanized my commitment to keep evolving into that kind of person. This could (and maybe will) be a whole ‘nother post, but I believe every time we bear witness to suffering, it is an opportunity to be a healer in this way. We can’t put our whole selves into each such opportunity without depleting our inner resources, but sometimes we must answer the call. And sometimes we can make a difference with little more than an encouraging word or a moment of openness about your own experiences or a moment of knowing, compassionate eye contact.

The song has most often been played in a trio setting (indeed Ron Carter’s playing on it is my personal highlight of the Patch Kit album) but was initially composed for an octet; although the arrangement and orchestration are different in the version soon to be released on the Ripples album, it too is for octet, which offers a nice bit of full circle. This newly-recorded version is probably the most potent of the hundreds of times the song has been performed, which only feels right given the importance of people on our planet willing to heal the wounds we all have.

the Cast of “Ripples” Part 4: Jazz Samaritan Alliance

One of the core ensembles on Ripples, the Jazz Samaritan Alliance, was borne out of a simple desire for community and collective action. In 2012 I set about assembling a collective of like-minded peers committed both to quality music and the responsibility to use music as a force for good.

Saxophonist Jimmy Greene (click here) is one of the short list of people directly responsible for my becoming a jazz musician (you can thank or curse him accordingly). I’ll write more about that when his own new album drops, but here I will simply say that at the most formative point of my adolescent decision-making about a life path, he showed me both how inspiring this music can be and how dignified a musician can be as a human being. That was well over 20 years ago, and he has yet to let me down on either front. If you can tell me a story of him either being mean to someone or sounding lousy on a gig, it’ll be the first story of either type I’ve ever heard.

I met Jimmy in 1991, and the second time we played together (which I did with my fingers poking through a cast on my broken left wrist) a couple other young musicians came to play, including alto saxophonist Kris Allen (click here). I had already heard Kris by then and was frankly puzzled by how a 15 year old kid could play with such sophistication. I’m still puzzled, but getting to know what a smart, hard-working and soulful person he is, it kind of makes sense. His depth of knowledge and virtuosity might lead you to expect a myopic “jazz nerd” (and don’t get me wrong, I love geeking out with Kris and Jimmy about this record and that bass player and so on), but he is a deep human being and one of the first people I turn to when I need real lucidity.

Vibraphonist Chris Dingman (click here), meanwhile, is to me emblematic of the best-case-scenario for a liberal arts-educated jazz musician. When I first heard him, he was an undergraduate at Wesleyan . . . and I thought he played both vibes and drums okay (though I was impressed by the percussion ensemble arrangement/transcription he did of Bobby Hutcherson’s “Ice Cream Man”). After he graduated in 2002 I started to get to know him and found him to be a really thoughtful, soulful young man with a lot of musical potential. And my goodness did he then work hard to develop that, having already broadened both his mind and his musical point of reference at Wesleyan. Every time I heard him he was becoming more lyrical, more swinging and more proficient, and by the time he finished his stint at the Thelonious Monk Institute, he was downright commanding as a player and a composer. When I composed my Know Thyself suite, I didn’t necessarily need vibes, but I DID need Chris.

Finally, I first heard about drummer Johnathan Blake (click here) in the late 1990s when he was just beginning college and pianist (and sometimes teacher of mine) Sumi Tonooka, a longtime colleague of JB’s brilliant violinist father John Blake, Jr., told me about him. I had the opportunity to play with him on a gig at a truly bizarre venue, a largely-deserted bar attached to the seedy hotel at a small airport in NJ right outside of Philly. But none of that mattered because of this young whippersnapper swinging like crazy. I gave him a ride to North Jersey after that and was struck the whole way by the energy of warmth and humility that came forth throughout. Now that he’s an A-list player, juggling gigs with Kenny Barron and Tom Harrell and Dr. Lonnie Smith and many others, that warmth and unassuming nature are, if anything, larger.

Are you noticing a trend here? Indeed, these are all top-shelf players, excellent composers (all bandleaders in their own right) and thoughtful, caring human beings. They all approach their music with the same impeccably high standards with which they love their wives (and in most cases kids – Dingman’s the youngest and most recently married, so we’ll cut him slack on that front – kidding, kidding!). Working together on ideas for putting forth music that impacts social causes has been illuminating ‘and inspiring and it almost wouldn’t matter if the unit didn’t become a performing ensemble . . . except that it would be squandering the partnership of such fabulous musicians (frankly, I almost feel like a mascot surrounded by such great players, but that’s what practicing is for).

They played their hearts out on three songs on Ripples: “Lester,” “Peeling the Onion” and “Motherless,” along with two shorter fragments with smaller incarnations. Bassist Linda Oh joined us for two of those tracks and some guy named Kenny Barron came and played piano on “Lester” as well (with me on organ on all three of those tracks as well as slide guitar on “Peeling the Onion”). I don’t really know how to articulate the vibe in the studio that day, so I will simply encourage you to check out those tracks and hear for yourself. I look forward to the fruition of the other projects we’re hatching up, and in the meantime I’m very excited to have two Jazz Samaritan Alliance gigs to celebrate the CD, on 3/13 at the Jazz Gallery in NYC and on 5/9 at Firehouse 12 in New Haven. Come on out :)

the Cast of “Ripples” Part 3: Chamber Ensemble

Jazz with “crossover instruments” (especially strings) is a tricky endeavor – the music needs to be played accurately, in-tune and so on, but also needs to have the rhythm and phrasing that make it soulful and authentic. It is, however, less tricky with the right people and I was fortunate to have those people for the Ripples trio-plus-chamber session.

The genesis of this part of the album was the Choate Rosemary Hall faculty concert in September, 2012. For a variety of reasons (none relating directly to the Ripples project, which I had yet to conceive), I decided for this concert to compose something that a) would kick off the “Survivor Stories” project and b) would make use of some of my excellent colleagues there. That piece, “The Outer Circle,” was scored for a jazz piano trio plus two violins (Artemis Simerson and Mark Rike), cello (Patty Smith – no, not the punk singer), alto flute (Elizabeth Kitson-Arnold) and clarinet (Julie Levene). They did a great job and really whetted my appetite to write more for this instrumentation.

As the Ripples album started taking shape and I did more writing, it was clear that although these colleagues were excellent musicians, the rhythmic contexts were going to demand players with at least one foot (maybe one and a half feet?) in the world of jazz. My first call was to my friend and former roommate Jeff Grace (click here), a fabulous composer and film scorer whose point of entry was through jazz – indeed, we were the only two jazz pianists to enter Rutgers as freshmen in 1992 and he played circles around me. He gave me some good advice about the orchestration end of things, but there was one thing about which he was adamant: I MUST call cellist Dave Eggar.

Good call, Jeff.

It would be somewhat misleading to characterize Dave as a “crossover” musician as his level of fluency in multiple contexts is such that he’s more of a chameleon. You can read all about his accomplishments and associations elsewhere (click here), but what’s pertinent here is that he was both wise about how to approach the session and the personnel decisions and really generous in sharing that wisdom openly, yet without “taking over.” Oh yeah, and his cello playing. Holy crap. His featured solo on “The Outer Circle” is gorgeous (we did three takes and it was really hard to pick a solo) and his section work was right in that sweet spot, with all the tonal richness and precise intonation one would expect from the classical virtuoso he is and yet all the rhythmic authority one would expect from someone chosen by Michael Brecker as a featured soloist.

With Dave’s blessing, I called two violinists with whom I’d never played but whose music was familiar to me. I first discovered Zach Brock (click here) in the late 1990s when, through a chance meeting, I became acquainted with guitarist Aaron Weistrop and, through him, a Chicago jazz group called the Spazztet. Since then I’ve followed his authoritative work as a sideman and as a bandleader (particularly his group the Coffee Achievers).

Meanwhile, I had heard Meg Okura (click here) on records by Dianne Reeves, Jeremy Pelt, George Colligan and her husband, Sam Newsome, plus her own Pan Asian Chamber Jazz Ensemble. They are both great soloists (Meg, I’ll get a solo in there for you next time, I promise) and worked perfectly in the ensemble passages.

As for the winds, the clarinet chair was filled by Ben Fingland. Of the chamber ensemble members, his is the career most closely aligned with the classical world, and I’ll admit that at first mention, this gave me some trepidation. Dave felt strongly about using Ben, though, assuring me that his tone was gorgeous and that his versatility was more than adequate to handle the rhythmic nuances – indeed, he was right.

My relationship with flautist (and, on more than half of this material, alto flautist) Erica von Kleist (click here) had the most history going in. Those who’ve followed my career remember her contributions (on flute and alto saxophone) to Know Thyself, which up until this record probably counted as my most ambitious project. As such I knew to expect musicality and professionalism from the downbeat, all the more impressive since I knew she would be arriving right as the session began from an early-morning bus from Scranton, Pennsylvania, where she’d played a concert the previous evening.

I had never played a note of music with four of these five musicians before that day, so it was something of a leap of faith, but boy am I glad I made it! We came out with great sounds on six tracks (four on the album, one for a project-in-development and one “private track” that I may or may not talk about another time) and they were all just lovely to deal with. It made all the funny looks as I practice-conducted on the train to NY worthwhile . . .

the Cast of “Ripples” Part 2: The Choir

Though I do have my own little “cameo” as a vocalist on Ripples, it was a major treat to write for people who can REALLY sing!

Recently I wrote about the sentiment behind my song “Time Is Now” (click here for that entry). I know plenty of fine singers who are of my generation or older, but it seemed to me that a song about youth empowerment needed to be sung by young people.

That was my line of thinking when I wrote the song late in 2008, having been commissioned by my alma mater, the Educational Center for the Arts (ECA) in New Haven. At that time the instrumentation was choir and big band, and my one personnel request was that Erica Bryan be the vocal soloist. I had met her the previous summer when she was a student at the Center for Creative Youth (CCY) at Wesleyan and I came to learn that she was both a gifted and serious young musician (as I learned furthermore upon hearing some of her compositions) and a powerhouse of a person. She has since moved on to the Hartt School of Music as a double major in composition and jazz voice. Since she has only continued to mature musically, she was a no-brainer choice. Check out this recent performance of hers.

The other three singers are all products of Wesleyan. Jessica Best was the first singer to be admitted into the Jazz Ensemble since I began teaching it in 2007, both undaunted by and up to the task of doing everything that I asked of the instrumentalists, whether arpeggiating through chord changes or vocalizing the difficult melodies to repertoire like “Prince Albert” and “Passion Dance.” That alone would is impressive, perhaps, but I wasn’t going for impressive (highly capable, maybe). I was going for soulful and expressive and Jess is those things. As such I asked her to sing with my trio at Resonant Motion’s inaugural “Jazz With a Conscience” concert in the fall of 2012. This was actually the first time that I had ever participated in a performance of “Time Is Now,” and she also sung the Oscar Brown, Jr. song (often associated with Nina Simone) “Brown Baby.”

Claire Randall, meanwhile, first came to my attention when I heard her sing a couple numbers with the Wesleyan Jazz Orchestra, conducted by my colleague Jay Hoggard. She was friends with a good number of my students and eventually took some lessons with me. Along the same “not just a singer” lines, she transcribed and sang, verbatim, solos I assigned her by Miles Davis, Lee Morgan, Clifford Brown and even Ornette Coleman. And she too is far from just a technician, with a maturity that belies her youth. That extends beyond music, as she has also been standing behind her commitment to music as a force of positive change as a Program Associate for Resonant Motion

Finally, I thought of Garth Taylor, who was never my student. He was, however, the lead singer of a band known now (after several iterations) as the Rooks. Featuring my longtime students Gabe Gordon (also an RMI Program Associate) and Spencer Hattendorf, the Rooks are a fabulous contemporary soul group and Garth is a real dynamo in that context.

What really sold me on Garth, and indeed on having him, Jess and Claire all participate was hearing the way they blended when singing together on Spencer’s senior recital. I knew they were all dynamic soloists, but hearing them harmonize was deeply moving in a way that I’m only capable of being moved by high-quality and soulful group vocals.

Because I had them gathered for “Time Is Now,” I thought I should take a chance and see about having them sing an a cappella arrangement of “L’Amour Gagne (Love Wins),” the setting of a short French poem I wrote that provided part of the musical thematic material for “Ripples.” It’s a tricky arrangement but I figured the reward (beautiful, haunting vocals) would outweigh the risk (doing a bazillion takes and not getting it). A bazillion takes were not needed and both Claire’s solo reading of the melody and the group harmonization that follows sound just . . . well, you can judge for yourselves when you hear it.

Each of these singers has a bright future that I’m excited to track. More significantly, though, the present is authoritative and compelling, and I’m grateful to have been able to harness that for this album!

The Outer Circle

When sis-in-law Carla Ten Eyck first told me about the Survivor Stories project, it was clear that it was right in my wheelhouse and it wasn’t long before we agreed to collaborate. Her inspiration stemmed from several of our family members who had recently been stricken with cancer, and she wanted to use her photographic vision (which, if you haven’t checked it out, is stunning) to depict them not as victims, but as heroes. By the time I heard about it, the concept had evolved well beyond cancer. At this point her scope had expanded to a more comprehensive celebration of the will and perseverance required to survive the sorts of adversity that so many people face, whether illness, violence, sexual trauma, bereavement or any number of other things. As a composer, I tend to thrive when writing about something I find meaningful, and this hit close to home on so many levels.

One of the ongoing challenges with a project like this is emphasizing the heroic and uplifting without sugar-coating the truth. The intention, after all, is genuine inspiration and not “feel good for a minute and then go back to cat videos.” Slicked-up feel-goodery (if that isn’t a real term, it is now) only trivializes real adversity, and it does not provide those who genuinely need a boost with a meaningful sense of solidarity with those who could be shining a light. I certainly know that when I have sought hope in overcoming my own trauma and adversity, “tra la la, I was once down but now I’m better” has only increased the feeling of isolation (e.g. “you must not have really been that far down, eh?”).

As such, when I took on the first piece for the project, it went in a different direction than planned, always a possibility when obeying the muse, as it were. In studying the interview with cancer survivor Karen Walson (founder of the “Cancer Victory” online community), I was struck by her description of those who did and didn’t step up to the plate on the highest order when she was undergoing treatment. She had glowing praise for those who rolled up their sleeves and stepped in to help in courageous and proactive ways, and it was my intention to depict the “inner circle” of whom she spoke with such appreciation. I had a performance coming up with an opportunity to write for a jazz trio plus chamber quintet (two violins, cello, alto flute, clarinet – the same instrumentation as on the version recorded for the Ripples album) and chose to use that as the impetus to tell a part of Karen’s story in sound.

As the piece evolved, though, I found it was taking on a darker hue. On some level I couldn’t let go of thinking about the “outer circle.” These were the people who disappeared. These were the people who became squeamish. These were the people who said “let me know if I can help” and then stepped aside and did nothing as they awaited further instruction. Karen did not speak ill of these folks – after all, we need all sorts of concentric circles to get through normal life, much less something as life-shaking as cancer. The sad parts, though, are when there aren’t enough people to populate the inner circle and get needs met and when someone intends to populate that inner circle but can’t.

If you tell me “anything you need, just call” that sounds great in a song lyric, but what does it really mean? Would you empty my bedpan? Clean up my blood? Or puke? Call a well-meaning but not-helpful person in my life and tell them, on my behalf, to piss off? Probably not.

And that’s okay. Save for nurses and social workers and the like, we can’t all do that for everybody, nor is it necessarily appropriate. What we can do when we really care is be honest with ourselves and others about what we can offer, and then proactively offer it insofar as we make the sober assessment (and get the appropriate feedback) that it is genuinely helpful. Someone going through extreme adversity does not need the additional stress of empty promises, no matter how sincere or well-intentioned they may be in the moment.

All of us who truly love others will at some point find ourselves with the sad yet sacred duty of being in that “inner circle” for somebody, while at other times doing what we can from afar. There is no manual for this, but with some honesty, clarity and courage, needs can be met and relationships deepened each in their own way.

the Cast of “Ripples” Part 1: The Tech Crew

In the coming weeks will be writing about the musicians who contributed to the making of the Ripples album, but here I want to give a shout-out to all the other folks whose work on producing the album was essential to bringing it to fruition.

If I won the lottery, I suspect one of the first things I would do is buy a cot and find an out-of-the-way space at Systems Two in Brooklyn in which to take up residence so that I could record there all the time. Do you think the Marcianos would mind?

In all seriousness, Systems Two (click here) is my favorite recording room ever, and the sessions with the Trio and with the Jazz Samaritan Alliance represented my first time back there since the Patch Kit sessions in 2002. The Steinway there is one of my favorite instruments on the planet, and for the latter session I primarily played the Hammond C3 organ there, the same one used on the 1960s classic psychedelic rock tune “In A Gadda Da Vida.” The room sounds amazing and there is a ton of great gear, but the key is the wizardry of the engineers, brothers Joe and Mike Marciano, who know how to capture the warmest, most vibrant sounds possible. Add the good vibes of Nancy Marciano, who runs things behind the scenes and recording there is as inviting as it is productive. Any jazz musician knows of the work they do and any serious fans of jazz produced in recent years invariably have a healthy representation of Systems Two in their collections whether they realize it or not.

Some additional recording was done elsewhere, also with good results. Spin Studios (click here) in Long Island City, Queens (a recommendation of cellist Dave Eggar) was the site for the chamber ensemble recordings. Nik Chinboukas did a fabulous job of getting the winds and springs on tape. If not for the lovely piano at Systems Two, I might have been tempted to get my rock music geek action on still further, as they have the Yamaha grand previously used in Todd Rundgren’s studio (I did get to rock some “I Saw the Light” between takes, but I don’t think anyone got the reference). James Schoen’s JBS Studio in White Plains (click here), meanwhile, was the site for the vocal overdubs, which were the finishing touches recording-wise.

If I had to vote for an MVP, that would have to be Justin Kurtz of Laurel Hill Studio (click here). Also chair of the Music Production and Technology department at the Hartt School of Music, Justin has been a friend and colleague for years, and he is responsible for the recording of my previous album, Turtle Steps. For this project he took on the editing and the mixing, and the level of expertise and attention he brought to this music was overwhelming. Most of the tunes on the album are texturally dense, often using comparatively uncommon instrumentations and thus requiring intense scrutiny to make all the sounds to be properly audible, yet to blend appropriately. I can safely say this project wouldn’t be what it is without Justin. The finishing touches, meanwhile, came at the capable hands of mastering engineer Alan Silverman of Arf! Mastering (click here). “Capable” doesn’t do proper justice to his artistry – both my colleagues’ referrals and the work I have heard him do on other albums led me to have very high expectations that he would add power and luster to the music in this final stage, and he did not disappoint.

I would be remiss if I neglected to mention the visual component. The masterful artist David Schorr (click here), a faculty member at Wesleyan University, is also a brilliant graphic designer with an unusual degree of artistry in the presentation of text. When he agreed to design the CD packaging I nearly fell off my seat, and in the end his grace and enthusiasm were exceeded only by the elegance of his work. Due to his travels, he passed along the final stage of graphic preparation to another vital member of the Wesleyan arts community, John Elmore, Art Director for the Center for the Arts. John’s skill and attention to detail ensured that everything was as it needed to be in the end. Oh yeah, and the cover art, a painting by Kate Ten Eyck (aka wifey) (click here) is pretty stunning too, I must say.

One of the biggest treats for me as a musician, composer and bandleader is when I can simply focus on the music itself and trust that all the “other stuff” is being capably taken care of. On this project I had the consistent good fortune of enjoying precisely that scenario, and boy am I grateful!

Re-posted from