Verona, WI is a smaller city than New York, NY.  I know, it’s hard to believe, but it’s true.  So, in high school, when I dominated the market on freelance gigs with the Verona Area Community Theater, I hadn’t quite hit the pinnacle of freelance gigging yet.

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When I moved to New York to walk inside the glass facade of The Juilliard School, I wasn’t really sure what to expect.  I knew I wanted to be a part of the active freelance scene in NYC, but I didn’t quite have a grasp of what that scene was beyond playing occasionally with the New York Philharmonic and rotating among the shows on Broadway

As I was waiting for the NY Phil to call for my expert rendition of Scheherazade, I was diligently trying to get my footing with schoolwork and lesson assignments.  But, I only really had a couple weeks of being responsible before my phone rang with a gig opportunity.  A real-live gig in New York! 

The man with the opportunity was a highly-skilled piano tuner/maintenance wizard at Juilliard, Rick,  who also enjoyed creative outputs on the side.  The phone call ended with something like, “No need to bring anything, just show up at the base of the Brooklyn Bridge at 8am on Saturday.” 

Of course, I immediately started worrying about my preparation.  The Boy Scout in me was pacing frantically wondering if I should just bring my standard 10 pair of mallets for every instrument and an extra tambourine and some fishing line and a triangle clip and a few bass drum mutes and maybe my maracas just in case.

Well, after a sleepless Friday night, I awoke with a flash on Saturday morning to take the multitude of trains (probably just 2, but I was new to NYC) necessary to get to the Brooklyn Bridge. 

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I walked aimlessly through the Brooklyn cobblestone streets in the rain to try to find this location and finally came across the oasis of our trusted piano tuner, Rick, his entourage, a sculpture attached to a boat anchor, and a marching bell lyre – you know, the one that you saw in your high school’s band room.  That was my instrument for the day.  After exchanging a quick “hi!” with Rick, my (to me yet unknown) chamber music partner arrived.  A dynamite trumpet player, who I immediately connected with, Chris Venditti, came upon the scene with about the same amount of knowledge that I had about what we were doing.

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The sculpture was a dark-colored, two-piece sculpture with a buoy of sorts bobbing up and down within the confines of the outer ring.  This was all attached to shore by an anchor.  In order to get it out there, Rick had to throw it kinda far, then let the tide take it out.

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Then our role was explained.  Our job was to:

  • Improvise melodies, motives, rhythms, riffs, anything based on just a few bars of a J.S. Bach chorale that was enlarged to 10,000% and glued onto a piece of wood.  Chris on Trumpet and I on marching bell lyre.
  • Sometimes interact with each other.
  • Sometimes don’t. 
  • Don’t forget about also interacting with the action of the sculpture in the water!
  • Oh, and every time the train would go by on the Brooklyn Bridge, it was important for us to interact with that as well. 

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This seemed unlike my idea of a gigging musician, but I was definitely not complaining.  You mean, I get to do some improvisation like Matt Turner taught me in IGLU at Lawrence University and I would get paid for it?!  This is amazing!   No be-bop licks necessary.

I loved it.  I was getting into the whole bobbing thing, Chris was giving me a ton of ideas about motives and how to manipulate register and sound.  Then we started adding movement: bobbing ourselves, then facing the train, shunning the train, spinning, weaving, standing stoic.  A real blast. 

I wish I had the recording of our pieces – I mean, they must’ve been good enough to attract a wedding party.

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Overall, maybe not the NY Phil gig that I was expecting, but a PERFECT introduction to my life as a gigging musician in NYC – unexpected, unique, sometimes wet, and an unforgettable blast!  Thanks to Rick and Chris!!!

I’m sure I’m not alone in saying Michael Jordan and the mid-90s Chicago Bulls were among my childhood heroes.   I grew up day-dreaming that I was playing alongside Michael, Scottie Pippen, Steve Kerr, BJ Armstrong and the whole gang.  When I’d watch games I would always have a basketball and hoop nearby to fantasize about being right there – catching the pass and putting up the shot.  Attending games was always a religious experience:  the feeling of walking into the stadium, the smell of the popcorn, the history hanging from the rafters…nothing but magic.

So what would happen if, 10 years later, I was sitting in my apartment and got a call asking if I could come down to the United Center and play a game with the team?  Though thrilled beyond belief I have lead butterflies in the pit of my stomach.   I arrive at the stadium and walk down the same entrance I used to, smelled the remnants of games past and acknowledged all of the numerous bygone demigods.  But this time it’s different:  now I’m on the court and everyone’s eyes are fixed on a game in which I’m playing.  Next to me are all of the paragons of my youth:  Michael, Scottie, Steve, BJ…

What if I told you that this DID happen to me on Monday night?!?

As a child I was a fan of sports and held those players in high regard, however, I was just as enthusiastic about musicians of both the present day and years past. When I started to become interested in jazz (most definitely a side-effect of my brother’s growing interest in the genre), among the first groups I ever heard was the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra.  Their jerseys were suit coats and their trading-card stats lay in the memories of jazz enthusiasts (“Oh, do you remember on the recording ________ where John played “_____” in his solo!?”).  Even though, they were celebrities to me:  Dick Oatts, John Mosca, John Riley, Jim McNeely, Gary Smulyan, the list goes on and on.   When I first attended the club as a middle/high school student from Wisconsin, my pulse was racing!  Waiting in line outside the iconic red doors, shuffling down a narrow, steep staircase that could only be otherwise found in small towns across Europe, and finally getting my first glimpse of the club that is the namesake of this renowned group.  Hanging along the walls, like the championship pennants hung from the rafters, are pictures displaying the monumental jazz figures that have graced the stage:  John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Thad Jones and Mel Lewis (of course), Miles Davis…with all of the greatness in the room I’m surprised that I even fit!  And on Monday night, August 25, I would be able to add my name to the luminaries who have performed at this historic jazz club.

My experience with the band dates back to June, when I received a call from my brother, Ryan (if you don’t know what he’s doing now, check it out – it’s pretty great – www.ryantruesdell.com), who non-commitingly asked me if I happened to be free, just in case I might be able to play some percussion on a recording.  After many minutes of questions and answers I found out – it’s Bob Brookmeyer’s music, and the band is none other than the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra themselves.  I prayed to every holy monument to PLEASE make this work out, and sure enough, it was on.

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I was asked to play composed parts for three of the songs on the album, Big Time, XYZ, and Sad Song.  Simple parts that were seemingly expendable.  They had rehearsed and recorded as a band without me.  I arrived at the studio just as they were finishing up, had a chance to meet John Riley (my Michael Jordan), and then, after John packed up his drums and moved out, I moved in with my suitcase, cymbal bag, bongo bag and snare drum case.  It turned out to be a quick session, and only after I heard the final mix did I fully understand how crucial these percussion parts are to the ensemble as a whole.  The tuned gongs, bells, bass drum, tam tam, cymbal rolls and quirky moments of free improvisation (one direction in the score was “Move table/chair/bang”) all gave the traditional big band a third dimension of timbre that couldn’t have been achieved otherwise.

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http://www.amazon.com/OverTime-The-Vanguard-Jazz-Orchestra/dp/B00ML0KGH4/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1409198332&sr=8-1&keywords=vanguard+jazz+orchestra

The performance on Monday night was the release party of this album and the air was electric.  Not only was I excited to be playing with my idols, but everyone in the band was filled with excitement because they were proud of the recording.  In this band, everyone contributes their ideas to the band – it’s not a dictatorship the way most symphony orchestras are – if someone has an idea or a complaint, they simply say it at the next break in rehearsal.  Sometimes ideas collide and have to be sorted out in some order, but in the end their is a sense of communal pride – and this pride was apparent before the first set started.  I was seated on the right side of the band (see picture below from my brother in the crowd), and could only begin to imagine the names of people who have sat in that very spot, needing rest after a burning solo on the bandstand.  In this spot I was right in front of Scott Wendholt (whose lyrical solos took the band to a new level), had perfect eye contact with John Mosca, the light-hearted but hard-playing band leader (and to him I owe my participation with the band), and could look right down the star-studded saxophone section at Jim McNeely.  Truly the best seat in the house.

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Playing alongside these amazing people and musicians was a dream come true.  I sure hope that I can do it again someday soon.

http://vanguardjazzorchestra.com/

As I am writing this, I am riding back on Amtrak from performing with the Talea Ensemble at Brandeis University last night.  The last piece on the program, Pierluigi Billone’s Mani.Long, was the cornerstone of the program, and had marked the third time this month that the ensemble had played the piece in concert.

The process of preparing a piece of this length (nearly 50 minutes) allowed me to experience Billone’s work in a new light.  First, it was the first of his compositions that I performed, and second, I had the opportunity to experience the piece numerous times, which rarely is possible.

 

Initially, I was lost in this piece.  I couldn’t hear the long-scale structure and I could only relate locally to the sonic connections.  The length of the piece simply overwhelmed me.   I had a firm grasp of the “what?” in the piece (sonic connections, extended techniques, blending of instrumental colors, etc.), but not the “why?”. It took until the ensemble’s residency at East Carolina University (ECU) last week before everything came together, courtesy of fellow percussionist Matt Gold.

 

At ECU, Matt and I were asked to lead a master class for the percussionists.  Before the class, Matt researched about the series of Billone’s pieces all that begin with “Mani…”  and are hommages to artists who inspire the works:  Mani.Matta is written for Gordon Matta-Clark, Mani.Leonardis is inspired by Federico De Leonardis, and, among others, Mani.Long is inspired by Richard Long.

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Richard Long’s art centers around human and nature interaction.  Epic walks lead to large-scale natural installations using stone, wood and metal.  These three elements pervade the sonic environment throughout the work and are at some times the focus or interuptive, other times just a timbral coloration and occasionally in the background.  Suddenly the length of the piece had purpose (to mirror Long’s walks), and the natural instrument materials gave sonic translation of Long’s installations and writings.  Armed with this knowledge, I was prepared to give a more commanding and declarative performance, and the performance in North Carolina was definitely the best one to date.

 

 

Another note about sound:

 

Throughout the early rehearsals, the concept was made clear to me the Billone is not satisfied with the traditional approach to performance on an instrument.  As a percussionist, I am used to playing the mallet keyboard instruments (marimba, vibraphone, etc.) where we have one bar for one note and, without access to a rotary drill tool, there is no middle ground when it comes to pitch – its either an A or an A#.  Timpani have long had the ability to fine-tune notes, but this ability is in the minority with percussion.  This does not stop Billone from exploring.

 

First, bending of pitches on timpani coupled with the African talking drum create the foundation of this world.  On top of that he adds melodic passages for stones (the pitch to be manipulated by increasing and decreasing the cavity of the holding hand while striking with the other stone), and superball mallets on tam tams (less pitch bend) and thunder sheets (much more pitch bend, especially when assisted by the foot).  Temple bowls are swirled cup-down on the cup of a large thai gong that produce high-partial glissandi.  IT was imperative to Billone that this sound be achieved.

 

On the other hand, Billone also writes for passages of complex sound.  Screeching of temple bowls (mouth down) on saw blades, temple bowls (mouth down) circled on the surface of the large thai gongs, and fast glissandi on the low range of the marimba and high range of the xylophone with very hard mallets.  I interpreted the effect here to achieve the same aim:  discover and realize all of the possibilities between the tradition.  The widest spectrum of sound possible, from the low grumble of the temple bowl/thai gongs to the highest screech of the saw blades paints the harmonic spectrum with a wide brush, engaging all of the possibly timbres and pitches from each of the seemingly mono-pitch instruments.

 

About half-way through the piece lower voices rumble in humming low pitches which hand off the sound to low marimba with soft bass drum mallets.  Perhaps this could be a case that Billone is mirroring everything upon the timbral flexibility of the human voice.  But what is the human voice if not a product of nature?  To me it seems that Billone’s aim is to show us that the line between nature and humans is not so clear.  The human voice moves to and through the instruments of the ensemble without seams, hopefully the same way we can coexist in the natural world.

New Position at Rutgers University!

It is with great pleasure that I announce that I am the newest addition to the Rutgers University percussion department!  I auditioned for this position in November and started at the end of January.  I am teaching private lessons that are focused on mallet percussion, chamber music, and solo percussion.  I also have the privilege of conducting the percussion ensemble in the upcoming concert on April 13.

 

Looking forward to the road ahead!

I just heard from a composer in Australia that Elliott Carter’s 103rd Birthday Concert, which was recorded for DVD, has been released! This was among my most special projects as a performer. I had the privilege of playing a premiere of his, a “new classic” and also his marimba solo Figment V. It was an honor that he was in attendance and that I was able to celebrate his 103rd and unfortunately last, birthday.

 

Here is the trailer and the DVD can be purchased here:  http://www.prestoclassical.co.uk/r/NMC/NMCDVD193

I’m so thrilled that I will be playing a series of performances at the Guggenheim Museum to close out my NYC performing for 2013! 

 

First:  Peter and the Wolf, featuring Isaac Mizrahi and a trio of wonderful dancers and a fabulous ensemble of Juilliard musicians as part of the Works and Process Series.  The New York Times did a great preview of the show.  It should be a blast.  Here is the link from the Guggenheim website.

 

 

Second:  George Steel is conducting a Holiday Concert with Vox Vocal Ensemble and Graham Ashton Brass Ensemble.  I’ll be playing a few works, including Ives’ From the Steeples and the Mountains and Bizet’s Le Marche des Trois Rois, from L’Arleisenne Suites 1 & 2.  For more info, click HERE.

Article for Juilliard Journal

Recently I had an article published in the Juilliard newspaper which gives a bit of background on the upcoming November 12 Juilliard Percussion Ensemble concert.

***Disclaimer:  I didn’t write the title of the article, and it may be a bit extravagant for the article itself, but the content is still there.   Hope you enjoy!