I finally finished my most ambitious and complex big band arrangement so far. The two words “ambitious” and “complex” can only mean one thing: this thing will probably never get played. But then, who knows. My friend Brent Wallarab, who directs the IU Jazz Ensemble, played two of my earlier pieces this past season and both of these were somewhat “ambitious” and “complex”.
This one has a long history of revisions and false starts. It started out as a sketch in 15/8 meter, received a “B” section (that’s the sing-along part) and the epic six bar solo vamp based on Bm11, C#m9 and Dmmaj7 which made it’s earliest appearance in a piece for 7 string classical guitar called “Trail Mix”. It was written early 2012 for “Splinter Group” and played live once or twice but nobody really knew what do to with it – least of all I.
After I had my first successful encounter with big band arranging via my German friend Lothar Landenberger in 2014, “South Central Indiana Rain Dance” seemed like a worthwhile and rewarding big band candidate. I started with way too many chords and wrote myself into a corner. For testing drum grooves and flow I had done a little recording with guitar and sequencer. I liked the tribal nature of the tune but just wasn’t able to translate it in to big band sounds. Then, as so often, other stuff came up and the project slipped towards the bottom of the to-do stack.
I am the first one to admit that over my entire guitar playing career, I have never had a really great guitar tone. Where many of my guitar playing colleagues developed into instrument and amp experts (dare I say nerds) and often spent substantial amounts of money on just the right, often vintage, guitar, this was secondary for me. There rarely was a gig in my career on which I didn’t bitch about my sound (then again I heard other guitar players with much more professional equipment having mediocre tone and bitch about it.)
In the beginning years, this had much to do with the fact that instruments and amps of any kind weren’t cheap. And I never had enough money. I think over the years, I simply learned to live with the flaws of my sound or tone. As a matter of fact, in the meantime I actually like the flaws and shortcomings of many of my instruments.
It’s a bit different with amplification. While I really like my 100W Carvin tube combo, it’s a little too powerful for many shows. For those smaller venues I had been using a 30W Epiphone tube amp until it blew up one night, emitting a pretty bad smell. It’s still on my workbench for repair. It was replaced by a used Crate Blue Voodoo 60W combo which I would consider to be the best sounding amp I ever owned (contrary to many guitarists’ opinions). I had bought the Crate used in 2014 and this Summer, 2017, it also fizzled out on a gig. This happened just before our European tour in June and it went undiagnosed and unrepaired until we came back (replacing all the power capacitors did the trick.)
Since it’s a bit unrealistic to take an amp on an airplane these days, I was dependent on whatever backline the venue offered, although on the second half of the German leg, I was able to use a friend’s Fender Classic 30. That was a sweet amp and fit well in the car. I had the iPad with me, thinking I would use it for guitar effects, but the small connectors are just a little unreliable. We did a show in Berlin where I used the house amp – I think a Yamaha Series II. Sounded okay, but fighting all night to get a halfway decent tone takes away from the playing. Then there was the club in Edinburgh, Scotland, which had a guitar amp I don’t remember the brand of. It worked okay and after a while I just stopped worrying. Next night we rode the train to Glasgow. The club there only had a bass amp and a keyboard with a PA. That was when I was really grateful for the iPad. Going into the PA system straight from the iPad wasn’t perfect, and having little control over the monitor speaker to actually hear myself, it wasn’t very comfortable either. But, after I listened to the recording from that night, the guitar sounded actually quite good in the room.
After my first big band arranging experience in 2014, when I arranged a full concert’s worth of my fusion originals plus some Pink Floyd and The Police material, I thought I was done arranging. While the concert in October of 2014 was a great success and I really enjoyed my two days of fame as frontman, composer and arranger of almost all of the music, after I came back to Indiana it was an anti-climax.
My friend Lothar, who had talked me into doing the arrangements in the first place, started bugging me again a few months after I was back home in Indiana. Somehow I didn’t feel it and I didn’t hear from my friend in a long while. Then, in January this year (2017) Brent Wallarab emailed about my arrangements. Brent is one top notch writer and arranger who (unlike me) knows how to do this stuff. He was interested in some interesting big band music for his Indiana University Jazz Ensemble – and they would even pay for the charts. He ended up picking two, “Bajao do Banana”, which had been played at the Tuebingen Jazz & Klassik Tage 2014, and “Alice’s Cool B***s” which is a piece that was originally recorded on “The Rise of Kwyjibo” and then got a big band treatment to become the grand finale of the show. But it never got performed because we ran out of time.
“Choro is an instrumental Brazilian popular music genre which originated in 19th century Rio de Janeiro. Despite its name, the music often has a fast and happy rhythm. It is characterized by virtuosity, improvisation and subtle modulations, and is full of syncopation and counterpoint.”
Another description I found:
“It is a complex popular musical form based on improvisation, and like New Orleans jazz, blues, or ragtime, grew from a formalized musical structure and many worldly influences.”
Many Choros to me actually do sound a little like ragtimes. But I am by no means whatsoever a Choro expert. I just always liked to play brazilian music on guitar and writing a Choro seemed a step up from a bossa or a samba. In that sense the pieces here are more like classical music rather than jazz tunes to be soloed over.
The first of these Choros was “Choro el Ninja” and it popped out in 2005. In many ways it is one of my favorites of the bunch which is why it was recorded on my CD Peter’s Money in 2009. While I was composing more music than ever before since then, every few months a new Choro arrived. Usually just a small melodic idea, which got expanded, transposed, taken to relative major or minor – one could say a lot of hot air.
Once I had a few of these and tried to actually play them I realized that this was excellent practice material – for sight-reading and fingering. Some of these I arranged for solo classical guitar but they are really hard to play and might get some thinning out when I have the chance. These 19 Choros represent a certain time period in my writing. I have since then tried to write more in that style but nothing presentable came out of it.
Choros is now available here. It contains all 19 Choros in standard notation and TAB.
A word about the titles:
I don’t speak Portuguese (I sometimes look up translations of English titles into Portuguese and use these if they sound interesting). Most of the titles reflect more me playing around with words, than expressing any important insights. Although, some of the Choros are named like pizzas on the menu of a pizzeria in Germany (..al Forno, Picante, Margarita, etc.)
From my earliest days as a guitarist I have been a fan of acoustic guitars and John McLaughlin. When he released the first string of Indian influenced acoustic LPs with Shakti in the 1970’s, it immediately spoke to me. With my rather limited technique I tried to improvise in that style. Over the years I collected various transcriptions of Shakti material, some done by friends some by myself. Obviously I was never able to play these along with the records, but they made excellent practice. These pieces have always been part of my practice schedule.
Fast forward to Summer of 2015, when my wife dragged the family to a conference of improvised music in Switzerland. This was not improvised music as in Jazz, but improvising with a bunch of people with little or no agreed upon parameters. Often more rewarding for the players than the listeners. One of the evening concerts was by a trio which included Swiss guitarist Christy Doran. This guy had been an early influence on me before even John McLaughlin – and I had all but forgotten. After returning to the US, I checked out his music on the web. While their set at the conference didn’t resonate as much with me, Christy’s own contemporary recordings really impressed me and I could easily see the connection to the band I originally heard him with in the 1970s, OM.