Sunday, February 25, 2007

Southern Influences

(photo of Bluebird Café on Prytania Street, New Orleans by Chris Becker)

I’m going to shift gears and talk about the influence of Southern music and iconography on my current work. In November 2006 I released my CD Saints & Devils – a 10 track suite inspired by songs, stories and icons of the Deep South featuring performances by musicians from New York and New Orleans. Saints & Devils was mastered just two weeks before hurricane Katrina hit the gulf coast and in the aftermath, its tracks continue to resonate with me in ways I could not have anticipated at the time I was recording and mixing them. As a former New Orleanean, I am invested in that city’s future and in the larger cultural web that is the American South. Southern music continues to impact my compositions perhaps less overtly (or more creatively?) than one might expect…check out some of the tracks from Saints & Devils on my MySpace page and tell me what you think.

On the March 31st concert, I’ll premier two new Saints & Devilsesque pieces arranged for laptop computer, electric guitar, and trumpet with one of the two pieces featuring special guest poet Sharrif Simmons. Sharrif is a Harlem, New York native now based in Birmingham, Alabama whose career as a performer and poet spans international borders. For the March performance, I proposed to Sharrif that he composed a contemporary take on the old story / song Stagger Lee and perform the resulting poem to music played live by my ensemble. He agreed and in fact seemed to really like the idea. To get the piece rolling, I created three basic grooves in Ableton Live using bass lines I had recorded in my home studio (with John Decesare on upright bass) and posted them for Sharrif to listen to – the idea being he could select one that spoke to him in terms of tempo, mood and “flow” (hard to define, but you know it when you hear it…) and that groove would be our foundation for the music that would support his performance of the poem. Sharrif chose one with “King Floyd” as its working title. I burned him a CD with this groove looping for several minutes and even recorded and posted a rough run through of the groove from an early rehearsal with Lewis ‘Flip’ Barnes on trumpet and Lynn Wright on guitar.

Sharrif will join me, Flip and Lynn for an open rehearsal of this collaboration on March 31st at 3:30 pm at Studio 111 in Williamsburg. You can visit my website for more details and complete dates and times. This open rehearsal will probably be the first time the four of us try playing together, so it should be very exciting.

I started the Saints & Devils project a few years after I had moved from New Orleans to New York City for reasons I don’t completely understand – although I’m sure I was simply missing some of the people, places and ambiance I had left behind. I also knew that after living five years in New Orleans as a composer I had just barely scratched the surface of its culture – and that was embarrassing. Part of the joy of composing music with such strong subtexts (like the story of Stagger Lee or the cultural life of a particular neighborhood in New Orleans) is doing research beforehand to help coalesce your inspirations with historical contexts. I continue to research the culture and history of the Deep South by listening to recordings, watching films and reading books – and by simply staying close to the friends who are still in New Orleans in spite of its current post-Katrina challenges. I’ve been back to New Orleans twice since Katrina, and I’m sure I’ll be back many more times.

More information on the post-Katrina New Orleans landscape.

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