First, if you read to the end of this blog and you are a musician or know one, you will be tangibly rewarded!

I recently gave a talk to the 1st year music students at the Schulich School of Music, McGill University where I teach. When I was contemplating what information I might be able to impart, I quickly realized how important the role of mentorship has been in my life.

My earliest mentor, my older brother Pat, brought home crates of records with strict instructions to make a cassette mixtape by taking one track from each record. He took me to hear great music very early on (including Steve Gadd); took me backstage to meet the musicians; encouraged me to take lessons with the greats; told me to remain open, play everything, compose. He was responsible for getting me to study piano for a year before letting me start drums – I get it now and often say to my students, “You’ll thank me later!” He brought me to my first teacher (who was also his teacher), who was then my next mentor, Russell Black. Mr. Black was so giving as a teacher. He charged $5! for lessons that would last longer and longer so that after a while my mother would just say, “call me when you’re done!” He had piles of music which were strategically placed for his “since you didn’t practice, you will sight-read for an hour” sessions! In my last year in high school, when in retrospect I think he thought he had taught me all that he could about drums, we would just go to the nearby McDonald’s and talk about my love life! Thinking back, he seems like a character in a movie: the waxed moustache, manicured nails, money clip, Hawaiian shirts, his Lincoln continental, the fast comedic timing…

My next meaningful mentor was Bob Brookmeyer, valve trombonist and composer. I met Bob briefly a number of times early in my life, and in my late 20’s became close with him after taking several composition lessons and joining his New Art Orchestra. I’m still working on the assignments he gave me from the four composition lessons I took with him! I have a vivid and cherished memory of the time he left me a voice mail, ending it by telling me he loved me. He was always honest but very encouraging. “Do not stop!” was a motto for his music and life. I watched him persist through illnesses, failures and setbacks and learned a great lesson by witnessing his courage as he kept going forward, no matter what!

I’ve been thinking of him a lot recently, in fact I started writing this blog because I wanted to celebrate him on his birthday, December 19th. Bob was born in Kansas City in 1929 and he passed away December 15, 2011. Shortly after his passing in 2011, I wrote this tribute detailing our time together.

For those that are not that familiar with him, here is a great introduction to his life and music.

Recently, I have gotten solace from listening to this record we made with Kenny Wheeler.

My fourth mentor is the great Meredith Monk, musician-composer-choreographer-filmmaker. I met Meredith when I was around 30 and joined her ensemble. She was immediately so warm and supportive, which gave me a confidence booster that I sorely needed after weathering the sometimes unforgiving harshness of New York City. I observed her listening to music and composing from an emotional standpoint, using her “heart knowledge” as some would say. I watched her work through the many obstacles one faces as a creative artist. If you don’t already know her, you can imagine how strong she is to persist as a woman creating innovative, ground-breaking indescribable work over the course of her incredible career spanning 50+ years!

Recently we remotely recorded some music for duo that we hope to keep working into a full concert program.

I’m not sure when it started, but I now find myself taking on the mentor role. For example, here is a mentorship conducted via email with a young writer.

One recent mentoree of mine in Montreal is Sarah Rossy. Sarah is one of the many talented students that I have met since coming to McGill in 2015. Her openness and spirit have shown me a path toward become a better teacher. It was through her that I realized how much a mentorship can also benefit the mentor! I would argue that she has given me as much as I have given her. Sarah’s Master’s recital was the first time that I really had a damn good cry at the end of a student recital! I’m simply amazed and inspired by her spirit.

This summer, I remotely gathered Sarah together with two other incredible recent McGill graduates, Jeanne LaForest and Roman Munoz, to record an experimental piece of mine called, Epigraphs #1. It was recently broadcast as part of the Earshot Jazz Festival, but for those that missed it, you can now watch it here! (You will need headphones, attention, and 35 minutes to make it worthwhile!)

My last thought on mentorship is about legacy – what a mentor can leave their students. My latest record, Songs You Like A Lot with Kate McGarry, Theo Bleckmann, Gary Versace and the Frankfurt Radio Big Band was recently nominated for a Grammy in the Best Large Jazz Ensemble album category. The great Maria Schneider is also a nominee (and I would wager, the soon to be winner!) She is also a Bob Brookmeyer disciple, so when I saw her name, I thought about Bob, his legacy and how we are still receiving gifts from him. I think about him every day, as any student who studies with me knows!

The Grammy announcement also made me think about the actual process of making this record and how amazing it is if you just step back a bit, look at it from a distance and then try to explain, perhaps to a non-musician…so here it goes (this ones for you mom!):

The concept for a new recording is discussed until it becomes clear that the music will not be selected by the the musicians, but by the listeners. The call goes out!

…a list of nominations is voted on, and finally a master list of selections is chosen.

The brainstorming process begins…vague ideas in your head float around until some land. Sometimes these ideas go out into your hands and perhaps a piano?

Many pages of scribbles and sketches on scraps of paper slowly transition to music notation.

Before you lose the paper (one of my personal challenges), the music copyist inputs it into a computer music notation program, where it starts to look like real “music”!

These dots, lines, texts and shapes are then interpreted by great musicians, who have been practicing their instruments for this moment and others like it. They transform these dots, etc. into sound.

Then the recording engineer records the music and tweaks it in digital recording software where it looks again like scribbles, but this time digitized and colorful!

Then the mixing engineer takes this recording, digitally manipulates and balances (“mixes”) it until the musicians are all “happyish”. This recording is then “mastered”, a mysterious process which I won’t pretend to understand, but in a nutshell the final recording is looked at as one big composition that gets balanced dynamically and timbrally globally so that once you start listening, you should not have to adjust any dials.

Next, the “master” is replicated and put into a beautifully designed package. The publicity crew is activated to start getting the word out to you, writers, radio, etc. Lastly, people, some I know and many I don’t, listen to this recording. Ideally, the effect of listening brings pleasure and adds to the listener’s life, gives them optimism and joy. Hopefully they then want to come back to this recording for the initial sensations plus new ones they did not get/hear the first time (and maybe some will give it their Grammy vote!

All of these seemingly every day actions are the result of years of work, creativity, ingenuity and good ol’ trial and error.

Here are the actual people, besides me who made this particular recording possible and whom I’m enormously grateful for! (I have a feeling I’m forgetting someone, so apologies ahead of time if this is the case, but it is a long list!)

Theo Bleckmann · voice
Kate McGarry · voice
Gary Versace · piano, organ

Frankfurt Radio Big Band
Heinz-Dieter Sauerborn · alto/soprano saxophone, clarinet, flute
Oliver Leicht · alto/soprano saxophone, clarinet, flute, piccolo
Ben Kraef · tenor/soprano saxophone, flute
Steffen Weber · tenor/soprano saxophone, clarinet, flute, alto flute
Rainer Heute · bari/bass saxophone, Bb/bass/contra-bass clarinet, flute
Frank Wellert · trumpet/flugelhorn
Thomas Vogel · trumpet/flugelhorn
Martin Auer · trumpet/flugelhorn
Axel Schlosser · trumpet/flugelhorn
Christian Jaksjø · trombone
Felix Fromm · trombone
Shannon Barnett · trombone
Manfred Honetschläger · bass trombone
Martin Scales · guitar
Hans Glawischnig · bass
Jean Paul Höchstädter · drums
Claus Kiesselbach · mallet percussion, timpani

Producer: Olaf Stötzler
Recording and Editing: Axel Gutzler
Recording Engineer: Robin Bös
Mixing Engineer: Brian Montgomery
Mastering: Kitchen Mastering-Brent Lambert
Production Support: Rebecca Laufer, Lucia Rosu, Annette Neuwohner
Music Copyist: Anna Webber
Artwork: karlssonwilker
Publicity: Fully Altered Media-Matt Merewitz, Colin Perry, Sydney Hill
CD Replication: discmakers
Distributor of choice: bandcamp

BTW, here is some of the recent “harvest” from the Fully Altered Media “planting”!

Michael J West for Jazztimes magazine
Will Layman for Popmatters
Ralph A. Miriello for Notes on Jazz

And while I’m thinking of musicians that I’m grateful to work with, as some of you may know, when Laurie Frink passed away, I wrote a tribute to her for my large ensemble, called All Can Work (the title track of our 2018 New Amsterdam release). I could not imagine any other band playing this after we recorded it but in this season of giving, I am offering the full big band score and parts to anyone who is interested as a gift. (Note: under “Name a fair price:” you have to write a number, so feel free to write “0”!)

And you can pass this giving spirit on by donating to the Laurie Frink Career Grant fund, which every year gives a cash award to a young brass player. (This year’s winner is Summer Camargo!)

Kate and I wish you all a Happy holiday season and Happy New Year!