Sunday, January 15, 2012

December 2011 TOUR! (Post-Modern Canadian Music)

Photo: Evan Shay

For the sake of consistency, I should once AGAIN apologize for lack of posts. Here's the required index for such a long article:

  1. Writing and organizing “Hope”
  2. The Tour
  3. Recordings
  4. Listening/Reading/Shows


At the end of the last blog entry, I claimed that I had “finished writing” the first movement of “Hope”. I should point out that this past version of me had NO idea what he was talking about... Firstly, I didn't know whether or not it would be a multi-movement piece. Secondly, I hadn't notated it yet (a big factor in it's performance). Thirdly, I didn't realize that there would be pre-recorded material dictating the flow of the piece. Fourthly, I added material to this movement a few weeks later. I'll try not to make these claims in the future until I have absolute proof or certainty.

I began feeling anxious about my plans around the time of the last blog post, since I'd more or less collected the band but didn't actually have any gigs confirmed. My grandiose plan was to write the piece and hit up Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Brooklyn, and record the piece at McGill University. Before any emails were sent, I felt it was necessary to finally have a proper website. After a failed venture recruiting someone to do it, I made it myself... Then I started contacting venues in all of the cities, trying to find places where we would fit and didn't charge the band to play. I made clockwork of a half-booking/half-writing schedule, including Mondays assisting with the wonderful Kirk Nurock in exchange for his input on the snippets of music that I would bring in every week. While I have your attention early on in the article (completely false assumption...) I would like to state: This would not have been elegantly executed had I been working a day job, and most likely improbable.

Somewhat recently on Alex Ross' blog there was a short interview with Esa-Pekka Salonen. Regarding composing, Salonen says: “The main problem of my scheduling is that any time in the diary which is not strictly conducting is called composing time. This is an illusion as the so-called "life" happens within the other 50%: family time, recovery, reading, general charging of batteries, taking cat to the vet.” Truth. Although I'm sure his schedule makes mine look like a perma-vacation, the point is still well taken. Everyone (myself regrettably included) loves to tout the insanity of their schedules. Let's all agree to assume everyone is eternally too busy due to the so-called “life”, as it makes for really poor

I balanced rehearsals/gigs, mixing the documentary music I had made with Dominic Mekky, prepping and recording on Talia Billig's debut album, singing with the St. Cecilia choir every week, along with so-called “life” and everything in between. I was extremely fortunate to be able to enlist my great friend Austin Peralta for the tour, since the new piece was to be a piano feature (written for him regardless). This was the first positive step towards making my plan more concrete. The music was coming along, I was toying with the idea of writing a “piano concerto” for big band, but the idea started fading slowly as I came to terms with “performance balance” vs “Sibelius-playback balance”. It made more sense to think of it as a “featured instrument”. The booking was slow, and reserving all of the musicians for that length of time was tough due to conflicting school dates (for members of the band, this is my first year out of school and it feels the same).

Having semi-completed the first movement, I set to work on the 3rd, bypassing the 2nd knowing that it would be simpler, plus I had come up with the idea of asking Craig Kielburger (the founder of Free The Children) to send me an audio recording of himself talking freely about hope (what it means to him and others) to be used in the composition process. I received a positive response soon after sending my email. I quickly asked Dominic Mekky if he'd be willing to manipulate and organize the audio portions of the piece and thankfully, he agreed. Thus began many conversations and exchanges of ideas via Skype. I have to admit that it felt great to be giving this work to someone much more adept at this than me, as well as having another set of ears to guide the music. It was around this time that I had finally confirmed all of the musicians, but the booking of shows was looking bleaker than I'd hoped. I had set up the NY gig first, but official confirmation wasn't coming in. Brooklyn seemed good to go, but the details weren't yet set. Montreal was tentative, I had to come in to sign a contract and pay a deposit (this would by far be the most “official” gig on the tour). The ideal venue in Toronto wasn't going to work out, although I managed to book another venue. Ottawa was only arranged when I happened to be on a gig and met a great sax player named Richard Page and mentioned I wanted to pass through Ottawa (thereby stumbling upon that gig).

It seems to me (I would love to be corrected wrong here) that Philadelphia really only has one “jazz club”, and all other music venues are either bars that host rock/folk music or larger venues. What's up in Philly? I'd love to find out... Suffice it to say that even with the help of some musician friends, I wasn't able to set it up. Maybe next time. The most surprising booking venture was easily Boston. Despite being a natural born “enemy” of the Boston Bruins (living in NY by association further alienates me from being welcome there on baseball terms), I had heard good things about the city from friends. I've never been, and figured booking a show there with the band would be a great way to visit, plus the Berklee crowd would be welcoming of the kind of music we make. I may be out of line here, but I don't mind: one would assume that with a 4000+ student music school, the area surrounding would be bustling with music venues, where business would thrive with eager ears and open minds... WRONG! Suggestions given to me by fellow musicians were usually given with a warning or a “you could try...” Where are these students gigging? Berklee's in-house venues either didn't respond or negated “outsider” performances. Not impressed Boston, not impressed at all... Let the record show, however, that I may still be bitter about last year's Stanley Cup.

Meanwhile, the third movement was taking shape despite being highly fragmented and having no end in sight . The band had it's first rehearsal on November 13th, looking at the 1st movement and running the two charts we were set to record at NYU the following weekend. It was around this time that the schedule was finalized, and the McGill recording date confirmed. The following week was spent finishing the 3rd movement (or at least making it coherent) and notating it. I had been writing the piece completely in MIDI on Logic, forcing me to input everything into Sibelius post-composing, which always takes more time than I would like. The band recorded at NYU on the following Saturday, and rehearsed on the Sunday (the 20th), this time only the 3rd movement. I spent Thanksgiving week working on the 2nd movement with Dom, having spent hours writing and notating many ideas only to decide that the music called for something different (of course...) As a side note: I wrote over twice as much material for this piece than is included in the final product, definitely not including all the terrible ideas along the way... We had a semi-rehearsal at my friend Neha's loft on the 27th, and the final rehearsal on the 30th with the complete band. The piece was 100% complete on the 29th (2 days before the premiere)... There was one last minute change to the line-up due to school conflicts in the trumpet section. The band was to be:
Austin Peralta (Los Angeles, USA) – piano
Colin Fairbank (Montreal, Canada) – keyboard
Matt Rousseau (Montreal, Canada) – bass
Arthur Hnatek (Geneva, Switzerland) – drums
Michael Valeanu (Paris, France) – guitar

Yacine Boulares (Paris, France)
Levon Henry (Passadena, USA)

Ilia Skibinsky (Tel Aviv, Israel)
Dillon Baiocchi (Santa Cruz, USA)

Sayre Schultz (Swift Current, Canada)

Ari Bragi Karason (Reykjavik, Iceland)
Cody Rowlands (Phoenix, USA)
Simon Millerd (Salt Spring Island, Canada)
Sam Neufeld (Milwaukee, USA)
Francesco Frattini (Rome, Italy) (NY gigs only)
Carou Johnson (Montreal, Canada) (Canada gigs only)

Kurtis Muller (Dallas, USA)
Gabriel Gagnon (Montreal, Canada)
Felix Del Tredici (Montreal, Canada) (bass trombone)
Raymond Carruthers (Windsor, Canada) (Canada gigs only)
Andy Sharkey (Fairmont IND, USA) (NY gigs only)

Douglas Marriner (London, England) (NY gigs only) - 2nd drumset
Dominic Mekky (York PENN, USA) (NY gigs only) - Audio/Electronic Manipulation
Dean Buck (Cleveland, USA) (NY gigs only) - Conductor
Eric Read (Chatham NJ, USA) (NY gigs only) - AUX percussion

Two and a half months of work for 10 days of payoff...


The beginning of my “tour” mentality started on November 29th with Austin's arrival to NY. On the 30th we altered some of the piano notation for his parts, met up with the Montreal crew (Felix, Colin, Sayre, Simon, Gab) and prepared everything for the final rehearsal. That night we all crammed into a small room at the New School, not having access to any of the larger rooms, and ran the piece 3 times. I felt confident that we were ready, despite some minor issues (i.e. not having rehearsed the older material).

Dan singing "Speak Slow" at "The Salt Space"

On the night of December 1st, we pulled up to “The Salt Space” on Broadway and 27th in Manhattan for the first show, greeted by my friend Anthony Taddeo. This is without a doubt the worst soundcheck I've ever had in my life. I ended up forgetting half of the music stands in Brooklyn (Dean and Simon rushed to a store to buy some), many of the musicians showed up late (partially my fault), and we were having trouble getting any piano to come through the PA. The audience had begun trickling in while we were still setting up... Nevertheless, the turnout was great, a lot of familiar faces and many new ones. I gave a quick speech about the piece, and snuck to the soundboard where Dom was set up. This was a first for me in that I was neither conducting nor playing; I was a spectator to my own creation (Dean Buck was conducting). This is a strange feeling, time goes by both very quickly and painfully slow all at once. Every inflection of every note is considered in real time without control to change anything. The piece went by fairly smoothly except for certain timing between sections. I joined the band onstage with my guitar along with Doug Marriner on the second drumset, and Dan Ellis-Ferris on vocals. After “Speak Slow”, we played some of the older material which now sounded a little reserved due to lack of rehearsals, but surprisingly well balanced. After the gig we packed up and mingled with the crowd; I had the feeling that we had participated in a communal gathering rather than a concert, which always feels great. I got to my car only to realize I'd gotten a parking ticket for placing the paper upside down... I drove the gear home and went to bed, preparing for an early departure. 

Sleep Deprived Bro-Out to Ottawa. Ari Snores.

We left New York as a 3 car convoy on the 2nd. We were headed for Ottawa, which was to be a 7 hour drive, minus the border wait. The beauty of these tours lies in the en-route conversation. There's always the inevitable bro-out, but things eventually turn to music and I'll go as far as to say that I learn more about composition, improvisation, and performance in these sessions than anywhere else. It was clear that no one had really slept very much, and driving all day didn't help. We got to the border around nightfall (if anyone would like to hear our border story, feel free to contact me...) We got to “The Avant Garde Bar” with just enough time to unload the gear, meet up with Raymond (Gab had to take the bus from NY to Montreal and pick up a car along with Raymond, then drive to Ottawa) and eat for 45 minutes before the “Richard Page Nonet” was to begin.

Ottawa Welcome

Squeezing on stage (Brett Delmage - Photo)

 It was great to hear them play, I'd never heard any of the local Ottawa musicians other than Richard before. Richard has this great fire-in-the-belly tenor sound; another standout was Ed Lister on trumpet. After their set, we began the seemingly impossible task of fitting 19 musicians on the stage. Our set began with a sizeable amount of people in the venue (including 2 people who had taken part in the “National Bike Ride For Youth”!) We began with “Hope” once again, and the audience became very focused and energetic. It felt great to be in a new city and feel such amazing enthusiasm. People were coming in off the street, fuelling the energy that the band was gaining. I suppose having sat in a car all day and driving North towards the cold doesn't sound too promising, and they needed to let out some steam. This is what the entire Ottawa gig was like, tons of energy both from the band and audience, and a lot of chances were taken musically, including a 2&4 backbeat-clap started by Ari over Kurtis' solo on the “FB Generation” (by far the best trombone solo in this bands history). I still have yet to get the recording of this show, I'm looking forward to hearing it...

Richard + Crowd during our set (Brett Delmage - Photo)

 After the gig we had time for a quick beer, I was asked to do a brief interview for “Ottawa Jazz Scene” with a charming Alayne McGregor, which can be found here. I had several people come up to me saying they'd never seen anything like that in Ottawa: mission accomplished I guess... A man named John Sobol emailed a few days after the show alerting me to a blog post he had written about the show, which I found to be tremendously eloquent and with a refreshing take on music in general. He's coined the band as “Post-Modern Canadian Music” (by way of the Nick Payton jazz-world hoopla), which is as close as anyone is gonna get to describing the music. Thanks John. This can be found here.  Highly recommended! We packed up the car and drove 2 hours to Montreal.

I woke up early the following morning for the McGill recording. This went until midnight. The next two days were free, so I used it as an opportunity to show the band members Montreal as I know it, including a full band + friends party, on the 3rd, and an “Occupy Jazz” jam session at “Upstairs Jazz Club” on the 4th.

Michael and Levon serving 25 people pasta
Ari and Austin occupying jazz

We left Montreal for Toronto 's “Trane Studio” at around 10am the next day. The drive is about 6 hours long, which we split into two parts and unsurprisingly took us much longer... During our lunch break, Yacine was taking something out of the back of my car and the bari case fell onto his tenor case, resulting in a broken horn...  We had the luxury of traveling in a car with a DVD player, and decided to buy "Cliffhanger" with Sylvester Stallone to watch for the rest of the way. Terrible idea. Arthur and Ari explain:

The Trane Studio
Just like the Ottawa gig, we arrived with enough time to unload the gear, and grab a bite to eat before the first set.  I called my friend Seb who attends Humber College, and he managed to find a horn for Yacine. We were expected to play 2 one hour sets. The first set went by great; I think this was the best set (musically speaking) of the whole tour. There were great crowds for both sets, including many of my friends who are now living in Toronto. After the gig, we began to pack up for the drive home (overnight...) and I had a dispute with the owner over money. It's a long story that I'd rather not go through, but I can say that I will not be returning to the Trane Studio.

After soundcheck at the Segal Centre (minus Colin, Felix, and Gab)

We got in to Montreal around 6:30 am. We slept, ate, and got ready to head to the soundcheck at the “Segal Centre”. This was to be the big concert of the tour. Having played at a “gathering”, a bar, and a jazz club, the band was a little thrown off by this night's setting. There was a unanimous feeling that something wasn't quite right in Montreal: one explanation was that we'd driven 14 hours in a day and slept very little, the other explanation was that we were used to being a little closer to the audience and having a looser feeling in the room where people were free to hoot and holler if they felt so inclined... I think it was a mixture of both. 

Sayre and the saxes

 Regardless, the show was amazingly attended, thanks in large part to everyone that had helped promote the show (Ali Levy being the hero in this department).  Many of the pictures on this post are by Evan Shay, an INCREDIBLE photographer, it's absolutely worth it to take some time and check out his website to see his work (there are more from the Montreal show there as well)!  Part of the show was also filmed by Claude Thibault who runs "Sorties Jazz Nights Montreal", and this can be found here. (Austin, Matt, and Arthur sound AMAZING on that solo!)

After the show I invited everyone to “Diese Onze” where Michael was to play a gig with Marc Beland on drums and Rick Rosato on bass. I had to bring many of the band members to the bus station so they could take the overnight bus to make early classes the next day.

Sam heading the band!

Austin in Montreal

 I left Montreal the next morning with Yacine, Austin, Ilia, and Dillon. The rest of the band had taken the bus overnight, or was staying in Montreal. We got to NY in the evening. The next day, I woke up and went to Carnegie Hall for a soundcheck and rehearsal for that evening's performance of Handel's “Messiah” with the St. Cecelia choir! I'm proud to say I had my Carnegie Hall debut at 22...

Carnegie Hall from the Stage
 The final gig was at Neha's loft in Brooklyn, also known as the “South 5th Collective”. We were splitting the bill with another good friend Ben Murphy's Large Ensemble, a nonet with a string quartet! This was set to be the big party/celebration. Sarah Safaie on bari, Blake Martin on lead trumpet, Andy Sharkey and Nick Grinder on trombones, and the lovely Martha Kato on the keyboard, filling in the spots that the Montreal crew had occupied. I worked the door for Ben's set, which was the amalgamation of an eclectic mix of all of the music that influences Ben. I've spent a lot of time talking to him about music, and we're both coming from similar places. He had been thinking of getting this band together for quite some time, and I was thrilled to have been a part of his first performance. We set up quickly after Ben's set and began to play in an environment that we've played more than any other: rowdy crowd full of beer. 

Neha's Loft

Dillon ripping it...

In a way, I still really love these performances because they feel more “real” as far as “big bands” are concerned. The setting is CRUCIAL to the presentation of the music, and I've struggled to find the balance between creating an environment where the listener becomes a part of something larger the music itself AND full fledged attention. It seems to me that if you give license to your audience to be free, you're shooting yourself in the foot a little, but I find it necessary in an event like this. The set went well, we played much louder than usual given the circumstances, the audience kept getting bigger, and the band loosened up (much deserved). After our set, we took apart our gear to make way for a band named “Population Control”. The semi-official head-count for the evening was 250! Not bad for an underground “jazz” band...

This marked the end of the tour, after which I was thoroughly exhausted, but proud and thankful.  

There are so many people to thank... Hannah + Olivia, Rick + Vio, Carou +Felix, Mom + Dad, Grandma + Grandpa, Seb + Jack + John, Zoe, The Fairbanks, Raymond, Dillon, Colin, Cody, Gab, Sayre, Felix, Simon: All for either lodging, agreeing to sleep somewhere last minute, taking a bus, giving rides,  lending their car, giving their time, finding instruments, the list of people and tasks goes on. The band's been thanked already, but it doesn't hurt to say it again. A WHOLE NEW WORLD! Kirk for the mentor-ship. Everyone who came out to the shows!!!

Things I found out/will not forget (this probably only applies to the touring band): Sam likes puzzles... Yacine can bro-out (he just needs a little push).  Ilia's record-breaking run up Mount Royal. Kurtis' knowledge of every inflection to every vocal line in every cheesy pop tune from the 90's. Gab's ability to take double the traveling most regular humans can handle (sorry...) Cody's love of Montreal will ultimately lead him to move here. Michael's pasta.  Raymond's fanbase in Toronto (haha!) Felix's range keeps getting bigger (and his schedule keeps getting tighter, uh oh...) Simon can handle a trip to NY without rupturing an organ. Ari can play lead! Levon is probably the biggest asset to a touring band just by asking if he can help, ALWAYS (plus he has a gorilla-like ability to tear through solos, despite the appearance of being more like a mouse).  Dillon is a ladies man, it turns out. Colin is Dillon, it turns out.  Carou is better at organizing than I am, hands down.  Arthur can make any kit sound good, including ones with missing parts and thought-to-be-impossible 30" bass drums.  Austin is Jondy.  Matt probably never needs to have a music stand (he's got techniques). I will never forget Swift Current because of Sayre.


Clive Davis!


I've been extremely fortunate in the last 2 years to know amazing people and engineers willing to give their time to my music for next to nothing. The newest addition to my talented arsenal is Vaughn Sulit. I had known Vaughn through my good friend Eric Read. He approached me in September about doing a 6 hour session at some point during the semester, to which I instantly agreed. I met Vaughn on the morning of November 19th at the NYU Clive Davis studio on Mercer and Bleecker. He had a team of people setting up the studio for that day's band: 5 saxes, 4 trombones, 5 trumpets, guitar, bass, piano, 2 drummers and auxiliary percussion! Eric Read was on aux perc, Douglas Marriner on the 2nd drum set, as well as Andy Clausen and Chris Stover filling in for the missing trombones.


 I had to pick up a baritone sax from Sarah Safaie's place to bring to the studio for my trusty-everyman-sub Sami Bronowski. I walked from Alphabet City to the studio with a baritone on my back, and charts in my hands. Awkwardest instrument ever, kudos to anyone that devotes their life to it... We started tracking at 2:30 (miraculously), our scheduled starting time.  I stayed in the booth with Vaughn while Dean conducted. We tracked “Speak Slow” first, without the vocals (this is a song I wrote to be sung by Dan Ellis-Ferris) and then ran 3 takes of “The Facebook Generation”. After a 10 minute pizza break, we started in on the overdubs; Dillon Baiocchi on flutes, Dan on the vocals (5 straight takes is all it took!), and Michael for one acoustic guitar take, and one electric guitar take (one-take all-star award goes to him, hands down). We cleaned out the studio with not a minute to spare (being semi-reprimanded from the administration for cutting it too close).

Checking Levels


I woke up after very little sleep (having just come from the Ottawa show) on Saturday December 2nd to meet Matt Baltrucki at McGill's Studio A. I'd worked with Matt twice before on McGill MMR sessions. He knows how I work, I know how he works. Good pair. The plan was to record all of “Hope”, which was to be released as an EP of sorts in order to raise funds for “Free The Children”.

Rhythm Section Soundcheck

 Since we only had access to the smaller studio, it had been decided that we would split up all of the sections throughout the day. We started with the rhythm section. Great energy, great sound, great solos, things were looking good. At 4 o'clock the trumpets came in. Normally I would have had the trombones track second, but there was a conflict in schedules and the trumpets were the only ones that fit the time slot. BIG MISTAKE! We ended up having to go past our allotted time, laying on takes upon takes, for the sole reason of having to record without the rest of the brass or woodwinds. This took us to about 7 o'clock, when the saxes were ready to track. 

Trumpet Soundcheck

 Things went by relatively smoothly, the guys in the section dictating what they wanted to redo more often than me (I was getting a little tired at this point). At 8:45 the trombones came in to soundcheck. They tracked for 45 minutes, rarely making mistakes, with great intonation. Say what you will about trombonists, they can lay it down... At 10 o'clock we began recording overdubs: Austin for certain piano passages, Michael for certain guitar passages, a very difficult clarinet/soprano line for Levon and Yacine (only to be omitted in mixing), many keyboard parts and sounds for Colin, and the solo piano improvisations for Austin. We tore the studio down just in time to hand it over to the next engineer (once again).
Arthur at his station


Photo: Shervin Lainez
Had I been smart, I would have written a whole post about this... I spent about 5 days throughout November at the semi-constructed (now completed) Bunker Studios in Williamsburg. We worked with good friend of the band Jacob Bergson as the producer, recording engineer, and mixing engineer. The first day was spent tracking the full band takes with legends Arthur Hnatek on drums and Dan Parra on bass. Subsequent days were spent on overdubs (I did all the guitar work, most of the male backup vocals, plus some fine glockenspiel and clapping work), and we had many other guests come in.

Raging Glock-work

Tal had asked me to arrange an “interlude” she had written for the record, which is a beautiful intimate folksy vamp with a haunting melody that ends with an excerpt of a lullaby from her childhood. I originally orchestrated it for trumpets, trombones, tenor sax, and bass clarinet, but as we were constructing the layers, the brass instruments alone were creating the best texture. We ended up using 5 trumpets and 3 flugelhorns (all played by Ari Bragi Karason), and 5 trombones (all played by Chris Stover). The resulting effect is a warm-bath-like swell that I'm fond of using. If only I constantly had 13 brass instruments at my disposal... Ari played on some other tracks, Kyle Wilson played tenor and Nick Jozwiak played cello on “Goodbye” (Nick is on “Travel On” as well), Ben Van Gelder played bass clarinet on “Egress”, and back up vocals by Sarah Charles and Alena Spangler. More to follow when it gets released!


After the tour I vowed to listen to music, read some books, and plan more future adventures for this group. I've since read:

Christopher Hitchens' memoir “Hitch-22”
Jonathan Franzen's “Strong Motion”
Naomi Klein's “No Logo” (currently reading “The Shock Doctrine” also by her)
“The Best Music Writing of 2011” edited by Alex Ross

So many albums have made a mark on me in the last few months, I can only share the most recent ones:

Bjork – Biophilia (my favourite record of 2011)
Bjork – Vespertine 
Arvo Part – Te Deum (Berliner Mass)
Prokofiev – Symphony #2 (Jascha Heifitz, don't know which orchestra it is...)
Daedelus – Denies The Day's Demise
Mozart – Concerto for Oboe
Nico Muhly – A Good Understanding (still freaking out about this one...)
Bob Dylan – Modern Times
Ben Wendel – Simple Song

I saw many great shows from September to December. The highlights were:

Darcy James Argue's Secret Society – “Brooklyn Babylon” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. This show blew my mind! I've always liked and admired Darcy's music (I was supposed to study with him at New School but his type of visa didn't work through the school). If they end up doing it again anywhere, I HIGHLY recommend it.

The stage at BAM

Nico Muhly - “Dark Sisters” with the Gotham Opera Company. Even though Nico is already being hailed as THE new young composer, I still think his work will continue to be recognized as one of the strongest voices in American music for my generation for the rest of his career. I'm willing to put all the marbles on that...

I've met with both Vaughn and Matt briefly for the mixes of the two sessions. I'll be working on the recordings in the next little while. Congrats if you've made it this far in the article!