Over the years I have read the many debates about strings in jazz and have participated in some along the way. One of the frequent complaints tends to center on the overuse of long tones by arrangers – also referred to as ‘footballs’, ‘goose eggs’ and some others that escape me right now. More often than not these show up as pads – long sustained chords, especially in ballads but also in up tempo tunes too. Why? Sometimes it’s because they sound so beautiful, thinking of Johnny Mandel’s beautiful use of pads while other times it is pure lazy arranging. This coming weekend saxophonist Steve Wilson is premiering a suite a wrote for, and dedicated to him called Journey To Wilsonia and I thought I’d write a few words about why – apologies for any repetition from other posts. This piece came about as a result of a meeting with Steve about a month ago when he mentioned the festival, the lineup and the surprise contact Steve’s manage Laura Hartmann had received from the organizers offering to increase the size of the strings. Don’t even mention the fact that these strings are drawn form the Detroit Symphony and the Michigan Opera Company – that’s all it took. We both knew this was a golden opportunity to tackle something Steve has wanted for sometime. Let me explain… From working with Steve I have become aware of how much freedom he has afforded me on what are basically his projects, so it was no surprise that he wanted to create an atmosphere of interaction with the strings that would take them out of supporting cast roles and bring them right into the middle of the conversation. His desire to engage his fellow musicians was clearly extending way beyond his jazz collaborators. It is with this in mind that I began to write the suite – chose to feature strings only with Steve on the first movement A Joyful Synergy – the name comes from Steve’s tune dedicated to the late James Williams, which he called A Joyful Noise. I also thought of the beautiful imagery I visualize always found when I hear a title Make A Joyful Noise Onto The Lord from the African American church hymns. For the record, other very moving titles I have come across are If I Could Hear My Mother Pray Again and It’s You O Lord , Standing In The Need Of Prayer (thinking of Hank Jones and Charlie Haden here). I’m not religious but I am fascinated when oppressed cultures (I’m from one myself) have had a strong belief system despite very little evidence that their prayers are being heard. During the writing of this work I have found myself thinking a lot of James Williams and how Fintan O’Neill and myself could sometimes run into him in up to three jazz clubs in one night – James called us the ‘O’ factor – I will never forget running in to Fergus and Rosaleen Linehan (appearing at the time in Dancing At Lughnasa on Broadway) in Bradley’s when James was playing there. He and Fergus got chatting as they waited to use the tiny bathroom in Bradley’s and upon hearing the accent James asked Fergus where he was from, suspecting he was Irish. James then told Fergus there were two of his compatriots at the bar and introduced us. Fergus, was still at stage the Arts Editor of the Irish Times and was quite proud that two musicians he had just met (us) were known by our fellow New York based players. Steve was very close to James, they made several recordings together as well performing together a lot. I don’t know what it was but Ido know this, once Steve started talking about how much he wanted to involve the string players more – a flame lit inside me, I couldn’t wait to get home and start writing. By that night I had sent them the opening two minutes in an audio file generated by Sibelius to make sure I was headed in the right direction – Steve responded with a strong Yes! and that was all it took. On the subject of pads 😉 I think there are only about 8 bars maximum in the midst of that first movement – the rest is all conversation! If you are in the Detroit area this Saturday at 6pm (Set. 1st) come by and join the party!
Best for now,