On-Liner notes to Tango In the City of Roses:
This album has a couple cool little stories behind it that I wanted to make sure got told. Part of the story is in the concept behind the album. Some of the story is the formation of the band. The most interesting part of the story is perhaps the ideas behind the individual compositions.
I’m a recent transplant to Portland, Oregon. To date, I’ve been here a little bit over a year and have met some wonderful people, great musicians, and played a lot of music. One of the people I came in contact with is pianist, Andrew Oliver. When I first got to town I founded a jam session that was designed to encourage the local jazz composers to bring in their tunes and workshop them a bit with musicians. Someone suggested I talk to Oliver because he headed up a non-profit organization called, Portland Jazz Composer’s Ensemble. It sounded like a great opportunity to form a real bond with some like-minded people.
Eventually, Oliver and co-founder, Dan Duval, launched the record label extension of their organization under which this album has been released. The idea behind the label was to release one new record per month that showcases some of the great original jazz that this town has to offer. It was also designed to be user-friendly for the artist, and accessible for the consumer. All of the albums are made in the “old style" by being recorded live to tape with little or no edits, and very little separation between the instruments. It is sort of like a classic Blue Note record in that a bunch of musicians get together in one room, and record a bunch of tunes to be released rather quickly.
Andrew approached me about doing an album for PJCE Records and I was immediately intrigued. In the past I had always enjoyed being in a studio and having some separation so that if something went wrong it did not take up every one else’s time to fix one person’s mistake. The idea of doing everything live offered up a challenge. I thought I might take it one step farther and actually have the album recorded in a concert setting. I figured that if I was going to walk the high wire without a net that I should at least have an audience. They would either be entertained or watch me kersplat on the ground.
I reached out to Portland’s jazz clubs and Jim Templeton at Ivories Jazz Lounge took the bait. The date was set, the tunes were written… it was time to book the band. I had been trying to work with a couple musicians that I admired musically and maintained close relationships with over the years. Peter Epstein, my old professor at University of Nevada, Reno (UNR), was the first person I contacted and he was more than happy to commit early on. He has always been one of my favorite saxophonists, and I always feel like playing with him brings the best out of me. Him being alongside me on the record was in itself worth the time, energy, and money of putting out another album. Plus, it was nice that Epstein had ties to the Portland scene. Epstein’s reputation stems mostly from his status as a top-flight performer in the New York scene, or as a fantastic educator at UNR; but he grew up in Oregon, cut his teeth in Portland as a teenager playing with all of the local heavies (Ron Steen, Nancy King, etc.), and attended Mt. Hood Community College’s jazz program. Epstein definitely has some roots here in the Portland area, so it was a nice tie-in for the locally-based record label.
George Colligan was the next person I sought out. Colligan, again, is mostly known for his output as a burning NYC jazz pianist. We, in Portland, know he is much more than a pianist. He is a great educator at Portland State University, plays a mean pocket trumpet, and will amaze you at well he plays the drums. He also knows his way around the pen (as he writes one of the more popular jazz blogs out there, Jazz Truth), is a great runner, and has a great sense of humor. I have been playing with Colligan a fair amount since I moved here, because I am diligent and have a tendency to pester the shit out of people. He relented and committed to playing with me, yet again. Poor guy…
I have been checking out bassist, Chris Higgins, for a long time. He is on an album that I devoured in college. When I was at San Diego State University, I bought every album on the Fresh Sound New Talent label that came through Tower Records’ door. This particular album, I Wish I Knew, had my favorite younger musicians on it, and it was a no-brainer that I had to spend more money I did not have on this CD. (These on-liner notes brought to you by Visa whose motto is, “It’s everywhere you want to be. And some places you don’t want to be, like mired in debt. But Hey… Your CD collection is full of really hip stuff and that’s going to matter in ten years.")
Ten years later I am at one of Ron Steen’s jam session here in Portland, and lo and behold, I end up playing a tune with Colligan and Higgins. Higgins moved to Portland about the same time I did. He moved here from New York (like I did). He is on Fresh Sound New Talent records (like I am). Having Higgins be a part of this was an easy choice. And a good one. He sounds so good on this record! My gosh!
The drummer situation had some uncertainty for quite awhile, but I could not be happier with where it ended up. Though Matt Mayhall and I only ever played once before this recording, our paths have over-lapped for years. He is a graduate of the UNR program, like both Epstein and me. When I was at UNR I frequently played with his brother, Mike, who is an excellent, creative bassist. He and Epstein have done a number of projects together over the years, and some include other UNR alumni who have put out some very creative work. Being an Angeleno, Mayhall does not have any strong connections with Portland, except that his father is a professor at Western Oregon University in Monmouth, OR. But the connection with Epstein and me made sense. Plus, I knew I could trust him because he knows his way around jazz and rock. He is the drummer in (Charlie Haden’s son) Josh Haden’s band, Spain.
If you have not put it together yet, this was the first and only time that this band played together. That is right… I recorded an album of my original music in front of a live audience with musicians who had never played together before. When I think about that statement, and the music that came to fruition, I am blown away at the results. I say this more as a compliment to their musicianship than anything else.
A little about the tunes:
Walther’s Pond – This tune was the last track on my most recent studio effort, Tone. I do not think that this tune is the clearest example of my compositional style. However, it is likely the tune that I am most remembered by at this point in time. Don’t get me wrong. I love this tune. But the form of this tune occupies all of twenty-four (24) measures. Usually my compositions are long-winded, lack repetition, and dominate several pages with tons of black dots. This is a lead-sheet style tune and is designed to highlight improvisation and energy over compositional acumen.
I’ll be honest with you… the biggest reason I wanted to put this tune on this record was for redemption value. Not like the $0.05 you get for recycling cans! I put “Walther’s Pond" last on Tone because I was really unhappy with my solo. I was trying to bury it. I practiced soloing over that tune for months before going into the studio to record it. Turns out, I plopped a turd of a solo. I knew I could do better. I knew it was a good tune. I wanted a second shot. So I put it first on a live record. The stakes were higher, and the solo was much better. If you want the background on why I composed that tune please visit the on-liner notes for Tone. It has a cool story!
Hard Times (Come Again No More) – Back when I was at UNR, I mentioned to one of my professors that I might want to play a Stephen Foster song in one of my recitals. If you do not know the name Stephen Foster you at least know his work. He wrote some of the most sung tunes in American history including, “Camptown Races," “Oh! Susanna," “Beautiful Dreamer," and “Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair." The tune I brought to my professor was “Old Folks At Home." My professor warned me that even though I would not be singing the song, the song has racist lyrics. He convinced me that I should probably choose a different one. He lent me a book of Stephen Foster songs and I found “Hard Times." The lyrics really resonated with me, even though I typically do not even hear lyrics in songs.
When I transcribed the tune it was originally in E-flat, and did not have much harmonic motion at all. I was going to play it solo, on guitar, so E-flat is not a great key. And harmonic motion is kind of my thing, so I had my way with it. Also, I knew I wanted to play my baritone Telecaster on a couple tunes for this record so I transposed it so that it sat really nicely in the lower key. I have been playing this tune for quite a while now, and this performance was how I have been hearing it in my head the whole time. This tune is dedicated to my next-door neighbor, the embodiment of the classic American cowboy. Here are the lyrics. Feel free to sing along.
Let us pause in life's pleasures and count its many tears,
While we all sup sorrow with the poor;
There's a song that will linger forever in our ears;
Oh hard times come again no more.
Tis the song, the sigh of the weary,
Hard Times, hard times, come again no more
Many days you have lingered around my cabin door;
Oh hard times come again no more.
Empty Spirits – I wish this tune had a more uplifting story behind it. In the interest of artistic authenticity and transparency I will give you the run-down on the formation of this tune. The title is a double entendre. I was at a low point in self-esteem and at the bottom of a bottle of gin. Something had to give and luckily a creative rock shook loose and let loose an avalanche of pent-up frustration. Out poured this tune.
Greenwood – This tune was written for my buddy, Loren Stillman, as birthday present a couple years ago. He and I lived together for some years on Greenwood Avenue in Brooklyn, NY. For my money (which is very little), he is the most underrated jazz musician in my generation. I once interviewed him at length on his compositional approach. Not long after, I sat down to my mother-in-law’s old piano and wrote Stillman a tune in my best attempt at his own style. I purposefully wrote the top melody line to be in the altissimo range of the alto sax because my man has such impeccable control up there in the alto’s stratosphere. It is a tribute, afterall. Here you go, Loren. Here is an incredibly difficult, morose-sounding piece dedicated to you. Happy Birthday! Haha. Love that guy.
Tango In the City of Roses – Here we go! The titular track. There must be some amazing story behind this one! Well, I don’t know about amazing, but there is a story. Long before I lived in Portland, I was stuck in Portland International Airport overnight. Though those that know me know that I am no stranger to airports, in general, this was kind of rough because it was during the holiday season. In the wee small hours of the morning I stumbled upon a grand piano that just so happened to be unlocked. That NEVER happens. Usually, when a grand piano is in public it is locked down so kids can’t bang on it and adults can’t play, “Chopsticks."
Now, I told you in the explanation of “Greenwood" that I wrote that tune on piano. And now I am telling you I wrote this one on piano. I do not want you to get the idea that I have any idea how to play piano. I know how it works, and I have plenty of background in theory so that I can plunk out things that occasionally sound good. But I cannot play the thing for crap.
So I am clomping away at the keys, dinking out little melodic phrases with my right hand, and little melodic phrases with my left hand. Eventually, I start finding a couple cool things that sound like a tango tune (I had been listening to quite a bit of tango music). I hurriedly whip out my laptop to notate some of the finer gems when some cop comes out of nowhere and starts harassing me.
“Are you supposed to be playing that?" she asks me at 2 a.m. in an empty airport corridor.
“I’m with the band," I quickly reply.
“You’re not supposed to be playing that," she insists.
“Look… I’m a professional musician and I’m not bothering anyone. Can’t I just play?" I beg her.
“We can’t just let anyone play the piano that wants to!" she argues.
“Why not?" I ask.
Just then, a stranger that was nearby and listening stealthily chimed in, “I was actually quite enjoying his playing."
“What she said," I echoed.
The cop mumbled something and slinked away like a snake into the reeds.
Eventually, I pounded out enough stuff to store away on the computer and save for a rainy day. That rainy day came when I pulled out Craig Taborn’s Light Made Lighter album. When I heard “Bodies We Came Out Of" for the first time in years it inspired me to finish “Tango…"
It is, by no means, an easy tune to play. It is difficult to read, to feel, and to improvise over… but it HAD to go on the album. The title of the tune and the story behind it was too good to pass up putting on my first record based out of Portland (The City of Roses).
Elle’s Lullaby – I wrote this tune for one of my best friend’s daughter, named Elle. It was actually written before she was born. It was intended as a gift. I’ve known her mother and father for a very long time, and now we are at a time in our lives when kids are being born. Elle’s mother has such a beautiful singing voice, and I envisioned her singing little Elle back to sleep so that her father could get a full night’s rest. Plus, her mother is Irish, and the Irish have a tradition of lullabies. Here are the lyrics I wrote:
Faces have come and faces will go.
But one face will mean more than you’ll ever know
One day you’ll grow and see in your arms
A face that makes your heart overflow.
In your smile I see my love, little Elle, my dear.
No trouble’s here when I’m holding you near.
Faces will come and faces will go.
But your face makes my heart overflow.
College Town Blues – I actually wrote this tune in Yakima, WA. There is only one little tiny community college there. It is, in no way, a college town. I do not know why I named it that, but it has retained its name. There is not much to talk about with this tune. It is an E blues. I play guitar. There you go.