Sunday, May 11, 2014

A CD Experience- Pete McGuinness "Strength in Numbers"

Pete McGuinness playing trombone 
I am a huge fan of the big band sound. I love how it can capture such a variety of sounds, colors, and emotions. I also love how throughout the years, the big band sound has evolved to capture the essence of today.

Recently I have been listening to Pete McGuinness's new CD, "Strength in Numbers", which encapsulates the modern big band sound, blending the strong tradition with a strong personal sound.

McGuinness is a Grammy nominated composer and arranger, trombonist, and vocalist. In addition to appearing in over forty recordings, he leads his own groups, such as the Pete McGuinness Jazz Orchestra. McGuinness is currently the Assistant Professor of Jazz Arranging at William Paterson University.

Here's a YouTube video of the Pete McGuinness Jazz Orchestra live at the Blue Note playing his Grammy nominated arrangement of Smile.

A CD Experience- Pete McGuinness "Strength in Numbers"

Upon listening to the CD, I was amazed by the variety of sounds and textures McGuinness's Jazz Orchestra obtains. There seems to be a jubilance in each song, which highlights the group's tight sound as well as each soloist's individual voice. This jubilance is exemplified in songs such as "The Swagger", which employs interweaving lines and textures, building to an engaging and melodic baritone saxophone solo by Dave Riekenberg. There is a certain danceable quality apparent in each song, creating a fun, optimistic mood. 

This CD highlights the big band sound, while also featuring McGuinness's vocals on the tracks "What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?" and "You Don't Know What Love Is". McGuinness's vocal interpretation mirrors that of Chet Baker, with a cool, pure tone, but with his own personal twist. McGuinness's lyric interpretation is thoughtful, relaxed, but also emotionally intense. Each word flows out, with certain pin points to create a rise and fall, and to emphasize every consonant with a sense of urgency. McGuinness illustrates a mastery of story telling through his dynamic lyrics, as well as tasteful scat solos which build on the song, rather than drifting away from the context of the piece. 

My favorite song off of the album is McGuinness's beautiful and original arrangement of the song "Beautiful Dreamer". The combination of its high energy and buoyancy with the sweetness of the instrumentation, soprano sax, creates a lulling, joyous atmosphere. 

Check out the song Send Off which is the first track off of the album. I love this song for its rhythmic zest and conversational call and response qualities between sections of the band.
The Pete McGuinness Jazz Orchestra

I was very fortunate to be able to interview McGuinness about his compositional influences, and his recent CD:
  1. Who are some of your main influences for composition? Are you mainly influenced by other jazz artists? How do you meld your influences to create your own unique voice
  Pete: I have been listening to many kinds of music all my life, but if we are talking about composing-arranging for the big band, then in the early days I was first struck by the Basie and Ellington Orchestras. Especially their recordings in the 1950s onward, as I enjoyed the more sophisticated time feel the bands and soloists played with (post swing ear). Ellington and Billy Strayhorn seemed very special to me. Real artists, not just arrangers. The arrangers for Basie were important too – Frank Foster, Frank Wess, Ernie Wilkins, Billy Byers, Sammy Nestico. Soul, blues and swing. All very deep in that tradition. Then later, Thad Jones, Gil Evans, Bill Holman, and lastly, a former mentor of mine Bob Brookmeyer, who really got me to think much more as a composer rather than simply an arranger. Of course, any/all other musical influences may be a part of the process. I love Brazilian music, much western classical music (my piece “Spellbound” is inspired in part by Claude Debussy’s sense of harmony). My creative process comes for making basic decisions about what I am going to write – general mood, style, tempo, then picking specific small elements to work with over the course of the piece, even if that also ends up being part of a song-type structure, finally then letting all my past influences inform me sub-consciously to work toward the goals I have set up for the piece – to “make the point” I have decided upon for it. Finally, I look back on the various drafts of the work and try to make sure the overall story and form of the piece is balanced – reuse of material to help support a general feeling of overall identity, with surprises along the way to keep the listener’s interest. Is it the right length? That is my process. Start basic and vague, and work my way in. Sort of like seeing a sculpture inside the block of stone, chipping away gradually.
2. What aspects do you like about the big band sound in particular? Do you like writing for a particular section of the band? 
Pete: The true joy of writing for big band is the sheer variety of textures one can create to present the level of drama any given moment: the power of the full tutti horns when a big impact is desired, the thin/rich sound of a certain group of instruments in unison (i.e. Sub tone saxes), introducing the various respective sections in soli spots as the melody moves around the band, creating new colors by combining horns from different sections all of these ideas and so many more are what make writing for 13 horns (!) and a rhythm section so much fun. I particularly enjoy writing for the woodwinds now too (flutes and clarinets) - they can bring a delightful texture to help the mood of certain pieces in a way saxes never can. This was inspired by all those great Gil Evans charts, and how the woodwinds are combined with muted brass. Colors! Clause Ogermann has a great feeling for woodwinds in his orchestral work as well. Just lovely.
3. Are there any particular challenges with being a vocalist and instrumentalist? Do you find that one helps the other, or that you approach each differently? I noticed you are influenced vocally by Chet Baker.
Pete: Chet was so important to me when I was younger as a role model for making the music personal no matter how it got out – singing or playing. The lesson his music taught me was is that many times it can be thought of same way, even if delivered by different mediums – at least to a point. A voice and a horn are indeed different things, but there can be similar ways of thinking about music when performing with either.

4. How do you balance keeping your music current, while still paying homage to the big band tradition? I noticed on "Strength in Numbers" you arranged a couple of standards and gave them new life- do you find this aspect of arranging important?
Pete: As far as being “current”, I write for my experience and my heart, while recognizing it is not 1954 but 2014!  I have studied a great deal about harmony and modern big band orchestration, but can always learn new things. When I arrange standards, I do like to give an unexpected spin to them – keeps things interesting. I learned that from listening to Bill Holman’s music. Brookmeyer’s last CD is all arrangements of standards! Check it out. It is all about paying tribute to great songs in a personal and often clever way. With other people’s original material, it can be tricky. A few years ago, I was asked to write for Dave Liebman, and wanted to give him something that would stretch me a bit. So, I studied a couple of Maria Schneider scores to clarify some orchestrational effects I was reaching for. It worked out great. The writing was still “me”, but I grew as a result and Liebman was very happy. Thanks Maria! I am often influenced by what other new writers are doing (like Maria and others), but I always write as I feel at the moment, not to simply be “current” for its own sake. There are way too many writers that do that now. That can sound very transparent.

5. Is there any advice you give to the musicians in the jazz orchestra while improvising? How do you balance keeping the intention of your piece while also giving freedom to the musicians in your band?
Pete: First off, I assign solos in my band that I feel are a good fit for the special strengths each player has. Case in point – one of my trumpet soloists is Chris Rogers, son of the great latin-jazz trombonist Barry Rogers. Chris has been around the highest level of latin jazz for much of his life. I have a mixed meter cha-cha like chart on my CD called “Spellbound”. I immediately thought of Chris for a solo on that cut and he delivered! Also, my drummer and one of the tenor sax players are not only good friends but are quite often a music team outside my band - “The Send-Off” is basically a feature for the two of them to interact. I have a lot of faith in all the soloists of my band and they always deliver. I am very lucky indeed!

6. What is the main difference between arranging and composing original material for you? Do you find that they require similar or different skills?
Pete: perhaps my favorite form of writing is arranging – when you pick a song people generally are familiar with, you immediately have a relationship with the listener. You then can expose them to the way you feel about not only your special version of the song, but your vision of music in general. At least one chart at a time! Composition is a bit of a different challenge – you need to keep your material clear and moving forward in a logical manner, even as you take risks. If you piece is indeed quite original sounding (no recognizable song form, etc), the listener has much less to go compared to an arrangement. They can’t anticipate the future as they can with arranging and pay attention to other aspects of your creativity. A composer need to remember that. Keep them interested but never confuse them. A real challenge, actually a responsibility.

7. "Strength in Numbers" is your fourth release as a leader, and the second release from the Pete McGuinness Jazz Orchestra. How has your past experiences as a leader affected this album in particular?
Pete: I’ve been creating music for many years now. I feel the music on this CD is the best work I’ve done date, simply by virtue of having worked at this art and craft for so long. One gets more successful at expressing themselves over time, and can go deeper and try more things with more confidence. I hope that’s how people will hear this latest effort.

8. As a music educator at William Paterson University, what kind of advice do you give to young musicians starting in the jazz world, either performing or composing?

Pete: know the craft, but keep your own feelings about creativity close in your mind. Never, ever forget what moves you. It may be very individual and for many personal reasons, some not even related to music! I try to be careful about nurturing that. But not having good skills craft wise will limit how masterfully one can create what is in one’s mind. This is something I try to remind my arranging students at William Paterson, even the graduate students (we also offer a Masters in Jazz Composition-Arranging degree as well as house the Thad Jones archives) - Go back, walk in the shoes of the swing era writers (Fletcher Henderson, etc.)., then Duke and Strayhorn, the Basie arrangers, Thad, Gil, before roll-modeling the current batch of innovators. Yes, do that eventually, but do so with depth of knowledge. There is a REASON the “big band” is structured the way it is. It has a real history. If one were to study composing for the symphony orchestra, one would check out Beethoven before Berio (I’d hope!). I myself like having one foot in the past and one foot in the future (or at least unknown territory for me). A fun thing to straddle!

The Pete McGuinness Jazz Orchestra will next appear at The Blue Note jazz club in NYC on Sunday May 25 – brunch sets at 11:30am and 1:30pm. Hope some of you can make it!
Final Thoughts: 
Check out this great CD
"Strength in Numbers"! 
Also check out McGuinness's last
album "Voice Like a Horn"! 
I am very grateful to be exposed to so much great big band music. I have had many opportunities to play in jazz big bands, oftentimes playing traditional big band literature or "classics", so I find it very exciting to listen to new arrangements and songs for big band. "Strength in Numbers" rekindled my love of the big band sound, with its danceable optimism and joy!  

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