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 . . .