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News and Views from Planet Lazz

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Thought I had the Lazz Last Gasp Set Two sorted.
But I suddenly ran into big juicy trouble with it.


Fred had made me the offer, and set me the task, just before Christmas. Our first window for wrestling with Set One happened at the beginning of February. It didn’t seem to have been a long wait. Neither did Christmas seem so long ago.  But the New Year had already brought me back into messing around with the eighteen-piece “Narwhal” ensemble on the North Shore across the inlet. That’s how I ran into trouble.


Members of this “Narwhal” unit are all disconcertingly young and talented. (Except for way older and less skilled Lazz.) Participation has me teetering on the edges of my competence: having to shut-up and follow directions, attempting to blend smoothly with the other voices, and struggling to sight-read the notes placed before me. The other singers all sight-read. When I brought in a song for which I had voiced the vocal melody in fourths, they had no problem.  When the musical director brought in another with tight close voicings, that was fine also.  My envy is as large as my inadequacies.


Invitation to join the group had come from M.D., Jared Burrows, multi-instrumentalist head of the jazz department.  His plan was for part of this semester’s focus to be songs from Lazz (once again an unexpected and enormous compliment) and somehow suddenly he and I were writing together…


And thus the trouble I run into regarding Set Two is the result of having a pretty incredible brand new writing partner and a consequently unexpected abundance of new material.  Well – seven new songs seems like abundance to me – seven tunes could constitute one set all on their own.


·       A pentatonic Irish-style folk-song on a drone.

·       A laid-back rock-ish groover.

·       A rousing 6/8 gospel-style hand-clapper.

·       A Cahn-Sinatra style swingin’ love song.

·       A 32-bar standard-style moaner.

·       A silly playful tango.

·       And one serious heavyweight epic.


The way we work is quite fresh and new to me.  After I send a finished lyric to Jared, he places an order with his sub-conscious (that’s how he describes it) and the next morning when he wakes, the tune is ready to be written down. He credits my lyrics for the inspiration. Very reassuring to discover that he finds my intentions so transparent – because they all turned out unbelievably close to how I imagined them.  Uncanny. 


The setting for our heavyweight epic was the exception which took more time – maybe two weeks – but it still hit that same E.S.P. target.  My overblown pretentiously dramatic tear-jerker lyrics, full and heavy with meaningful self-importance, had actually caused him to weep, and to develop a moody waltz like that from a romantic French movie – in the style of Michel LeGrand.  Again, it was what I had envisioned – like a cross between Jacques Brel and Kenny Wheeler.  Wow!!  I love it.


And the extra bonus is that Jared - a fabulous guitarist and luthier with deep background in a broad range of different musical traditions - expressed a wish to be part of the project I am working on with Fred.




Fred had given me the task of conceiving and designing the shape of two sets.


He was pushing me to think about the bigger picture, to think about ways of somehow moulding the performance repertoire of my own puny art into an enjoyable and rewarding entertainment.


My stuff happens in a jazz idiom.  And nobody digs jazz anymore, do they?  I guess because of stuff like that old standard format, the predictable ritual of regular solo successions after the head, one after the other, culminating with a bass solo and likely an obligatory trading of fours with the drummer before a closing statement of the theme – a structure repeated on almost every tune – all punctuated by in-between on-stage chatter of deciding which tune to do next, the earnest muso twittering of bearded intensities and not necessarily a lot of laughs.


I don’t want to do like that.
Most definitely.



With idea of Set One coherent and complete and on paper, I called Fred and fixed a date. We met in his office at the University of British Columbia.  It’s real easy for me to get there by bus.  Plus, the place comes with a grand piano.


The first two tunes I put up received serious rebuke.  Both songs from long ago written with Doug Louie. Fred demanded answers.  Why do you want to do this? What is the purpose of these cut-bars? What are you saying here?  How is it supposed to feel?


The argument with the first tune was predominantly harmonic. Doug had grown up playing keyboards in rock’n’roll bands. So those nasty unwelcome keys so full of sharps, yet so popular for guitar – like E, A and D – had become perfectly normal for him. His harmonic conception derives from having had to play in three sharps and four sharps every night, while Fred’s craft roots are in big-bands and be-bop where more civilized keys are favoured because of their more comfortable accommodation of transpositions for Eb and Bb instruments.


“Chinese chords!” I said to Fred, making reference to the slur once aimed at Charlie Parker’s be-bop by the non-comprehending swing musicians of an earlier generation.  We both knew the story and laughed at the silly irony while Fred performed profound reconstructive surgery to make better sense of Doug’s harmonic intent.  All twenty-eight bars of it.  Short and sweet.  A devotional atheist prayer voiced like a chorale by horns & voice as an unexpected audience-catching set-opener. In this revised form, it ultimately starts the “good” pile.


Critique of the second song focused on its stylistic ‘70s half-time-funk devices.  OK. Let’s call ‘em clichés. Fred found it dated and incongruous –  a poor fit with what he knew of me.  Again, I had to justify its existence.  And struggled to do so.


Reasons I like it are that I already wrote a complete arrangement using a Tony Allen afro-beat groove I had transcribed, and very slick horn voicings (I thought) for an especially “different” solo section with distinctly non-functional chords. I was proud of the work I had put into it and what I had learned on the journey.  Like the smell of one’s own farts, however, all was illusion and self-deception. The tune has no point, said Fred, neither is there effective relation between the vocal song section and that solo section, where the chord changes of which I had been so proud are actually musically meaningless shite.


And so we started the “bad” pile.


The remaining six pieces I had prepared survived the assessment in much better condition apart from some small harmonic revisions and key modifications.  Thus happy we had a satisfactory First Set, we next discussed instrumentation and other details while Fred gathered my lead-sheets and outline sketches of how I dreamed each being presented & played. He will realise arrangements and charts over the next couple of weeks, after which we’ll get together to work on Set Two.


We briefly spoke of personnel also – which frightened the life out of me.  Really.  Being able to benefit from the Stride-touch on my stuff is still hard to believe. But the names he identified from his first-call list are quite naturally of course the top guys in town.  A very intimidatory prospect indeed.  But even more amazing was Fred’s response to my casual mention that I had saved enough spare cash to pay for a rehearsal – he said that with a project of such high quality they would all be up to rehearse for free. Wow!  Speechless. I can’t recall his exact words. I remember him looking at me.  Straight and honest.  The idea expressed was that we should have great arrangements of great material played by a great band.


All in a day’s work for Fred, maybe: another big unexpected head-spinning surprise for me.


The Last Gasp

Just spent a lovely evening of beer and laughter in the company of an old commercial west-coast arranger.  Not that old.  Fred is actually a handful of years my junior.  But certainly old-skool.  With craft expertise and professional fluency in generous abundance. And his models for organising the musical universe are those he learned from Dick Grove


The Dick Grove School of Music in the San Fernando Valley was, through the ‘70s and ‘80s, Southern California’s leading trade school for instrumentalists and singers planning to work in Hollywood studio and entertainment scenes. Students include Michael Jackson, Linda Ronstadt, a whole legion of west-coast professional jobbing lesser-knowns like my co-writing partner, Pat Coleman, for instance…..


And Fred.



Dick Grove’s own comprehensive system of music education incorporated the old Schillinger system which formed the basis of curricula at Berklee – I once encouraged Alistair to choose one of their free courses for fun and unrealistic challenge – and the Fred Stride system is grown from Grove’s.  That’s the vague lineage of a style of thinking, as I understand it, which became the muso lingua franca.


A couple of years back I spent half-a-dozen hours a week for a handful of months studying theory under Fred’s tutelage.  A very high-intensity privilege.  Then another handful of months sub-editing his un-published pedagogic texts.  And all full of the stuff (finally!) that I wish I had known about fifty years ago.  If only …


Right now though, in my dotage (or “though in my dotage”), I have gathered together a collection of songs as last-gasp performance vehicles for my decrepit self and rhythm section with small horn-section of trumpet (doubling flugelhorn), tenor sax (doubling soprano), and trombone. But my progress in writing the arrangements has been slow and tentative. So I asked Fred for help – and he made me a magnificent and unexpected offer.


Fred said we should treat the performance in entirety.


My job first, he told me, is to organise two sets.  Paying attention to keys & tempos, grooves & styles, continuity & contrast, tension & release, he asks me to make a detailed sketch of their emotional contour.  And then, when I bring him the lead-sheets, we can sit down together at his piano and construct complete written arrangements for a satisfyingly coherent evening of entertainment.


I am excited.

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