Tag Archives: Jazz

A Melancholy Science


Here are tracks from my new trio’s most recent performance – at Rutman’s Violins on June 26th, 2009:

Thriving Off a Riff

A Shrug of the Shoulders (formerly “Piece for Trio”)

An Excuse for Laziness (formerly “Tapes”)


Randy Pingrey on trombone, water
James Wylie on alto sax, clarinet, and tape
Joe Moffett on trumpet and tape

Recorded by Dan VanHassel (thanks Dan!)

If you’re interested in hearing more here are the same tunes, a few days earlier, in rehearsal.

A word or two about the compositions: the three tunes we played at the event were written specifically for that concert.  My goal was to strip back some of the layers of composition, in order to try to reveal the thing – or anything – that lies underneath.  From Godard’s movie My Life to Live: “A bird is an animal with an inside and an outside. Remove the outside, there’s the inside. Remove the inside and you see the soul.”  If you similarly remove the outside and inside of composition, what is the remainder?  This is my melancholy science.

Thriving Off a Riff is based on a Webern string quartet, but only in the loosest of terms.  Some of the pitch material is kept, and I try to maintain a similar sense of pacing and form.  The goal for me was to show, in some small way, the inadequacy of pitch as an expressive device.  That at a certain point, pitch fails to express some of the expressions that are most basic and essential for us to express.  I chose to base the piece after Webern because of his connection to and mastery of pitch, and to show that (if only to myself) there is more to his craft than the clever reordering of pitch rows.  This aspect – pitch – was the first compositional layer I chose to peel back.

A Shrug of the Shoulders is an attempt to give aesthetic weight to failure and incompetence, much in the same spirit as Samuel Beckett, whose words started this blog two months ago.  I’m interested in investigating the point at which virtuosity breaks down and becomes irrelevant to the musical goals.  The compositional challenge has an interesting proposal: how do you write music which remains interesting (or at least sympathetic) yet embraces failure?  Do you go for charming impotence, humorous ignorance, or (preferably) do you go for something deeper?  This aspect – virtuosity – was the second compositional layer I chose to peel back.

An Excuse for Laziness examines the metaphorical end-of-the-line for composition.  The compositional aspect, instead of relying on pitch or form or other written aspects, is based on orchestration – each player is limited to playing with certain cliche sounds from early jazz performance practice – and on the prerecorded tapes which James and Joe manipulate on old, barely functional tape players which they didn’t necessarily know how to operate.  My goal, in the loftiest and most pretentious way of putting it, was to try to capture an aural sense of oldness, to show that at the eleventh hour it is improssible to remain timelessly hip and that sooner or later everyone looks at least a little old-fashioned.  Was it a success?  Well, it’s a topic I’ll certainly have to come back to.  This aspect – composition, itself – was the third and last compositional layer I chose to peel back.

After all this: what remains?  I’m not yet sure.  Check out the tracks, and tell me what you think.

And, as if that wasn’t enough for me to blabber on about, here is my arrangement of Raffi’s Baby Beluga, which was performed by the Comprovised All-Stars:

Baby Beluga

Or, if you prefer:

I’m extremely grateful for all the wonderful performers that you hear on these tracks, and deserving of particular thanks is Travis Alford and Dan VanHassel for arranging the concert and inviting me to bring my weirdo stuff as well as Joe and James, who play so wonderfully (and musically!) on the trio tracks.

Thank you very much for listening!


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Jazz in our Postmodern Times

Right now it’s 10:30 and the Bill McHenry Quintet is between sets at the Village Vanguard in New York. 

Performing are:
Bill McHenry: tenor sax
Duane Eubanks: trumpet
Andrew D’Angelo: alto sax
Ben Street: bass
Paul Motion: drums

I’m not sure which is more amazing:

1) I’m watching it from Boston, and the audio is excellent.
2) There are records (famous, famous records we all have) with Paul Motion playing there in 1961 with Bill Evans and Scott LaFaro and he’s still playing there!  And he sounds good.  And he has developed his own concept for almost 50 years.
3) Andrew D’Angelo sounds killing.  That guy had cancer – brain cancer – and he’s still with us.

There was also a chat room where you could interact with the radio hosts and other viewers in real time, if that’s your thing.  And no one drink minimum at my house.  And I don’t have to figure out how to get home after the show. Thinking back to when I was back in high school, this sort of technology would have been almost totally unimaginable to me.  It would have all seemed like something out of Star Trek, yet here we are.

Did you miss it?  Bummer!  Fortunately, you can download (or stream or whatever) the audio from NPR’s website.  I’ll post the links in an update tomorrow.  Also, I’d recommend following Live at the Village Vanguard and the NPR jazz blog ( A Blog Supreme).  Next month they’re going to be broadcasting a set by the Fred Hirsch trio.  Hot damn!  There’s also a corresponding Flickr site

And what about the music?  It was fantastic!  I’m a big fan of Roses, Bill McHenry’s latest effort, and the most original moments of the broadcast – the new McHenry tunes – were the next logical step in that language.  Rubato, post-free jazz, which has unique forms and very thoughtful improvisation.  Maybe I’ll write more about this later, when I have more time.

Bill McHenry

Bill McHenry Live at the Village Vanguard

Ok – the 11 o’clock set is starting!  Gotta go!

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A New Project

On June 26th, I’ll be premiering a new project at Rutman’s Violins as part of Travis Alford’s Comprovised music series. It will feature James Wylie on saxophones and clarinet and Joe Moffett on trumpet (and Scott Halligan might join us if the stars align in our favor). We’re going to play music that addresses some of the ideas I’ve been tossing around in my head – this is the first group I’ve had that has nothing like a rhythm section, and I’m going to try to channel the sounds of early jazz.

Needless to say, I’m really excited to begin working again on something that’s my own thing.

Right now I’m trying to break the 10 minute mark as far as composition and form are concerned. All of my previous work really times out at 5 or 10 minutes – after that the composition looses steam. I’m trying right now to write music which could go on for twenty minutes and still be interesting.

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