I normally work hard to come up with excuses to not write a blog. In the last 5 months I have not had to put much effort into my normal “excuse creation” practice because of world events. On the other hand, what keeps coming back to me during this tumultuous time is the power of music, how it can give both the listeners and the creators hope and relief. So with a good dose of guilt lurking in the shadows, I’m offering this blog to let y’all know what I have been up to musically (I will try to keep it short!).
A few years ago, the founding members of the Brussels Vocal Project (BVP), Anu Junnonen, Elsa Gregoire and François Vaiana, came to me with a proposal to write new music for them plus special guest, percussionist extraordinaire Moritz Baumgartner. They were set to write lyrics based on traditional nursery rhymes, and I would write music using those words to create modern musical versions of these folktales. It was such a fun and challenging collaboration putting this music together over the last few years when we could still meet in Brussels. Although the album’s release has been postponed until late October, I’m so happy to share this video of one of the pieces, “The Prime Minister’s New Art” (a modern take on the Emperor’s New Clothes). To celebrate the new album, BVP will perform in Brussels at the Werplaats Walter on Nov. 21 and in Paris at Studio de l’Ermitage on Nov. 26 of this year.
Pre-COVID, I was going to be in Finland for the whole month of August as an Artist-in-Residence. Part of this project was a concert with the legendary UMO Jazz Orchestra. Our activities have been postponed until August 2021, but as an homage to Florian Schneider, we recorded this video of my arrangement of “The Model” by Kraftwerk. (Florian Schneider is a founding member of Kraftwerk who died in April of this year.)
In late March, I was hoping to be at the best music festival ever, Big Ears, with my Claudia Quintet. Although we had to postpone the tour, we put together this video of a newish tune in April. We hope you agree with the title, “nice tune”!
I’m a proud member of Curtis Hasselbring’s New Mellow Edwards! In May, Curtis put together a video recording of this new gem, which we remotely recorded in support of the great Brooklyn venue Barbès.
In May & June, I worked on this fun project that Chris Tordini produced with the fabulous saxophonist from Iceland, Óskar Guðjónsson, and me. The process was fun: one of us would improvise and record it, then pass the recording to another, who would then add to it and pass it to the last person for them to add to it. Did I say it was a lot of fun?!
I’m one of the many ignorant folk who did not know about Juneteenth until 2020. I’m very saddened and surprised that no one ever mentioned it to me, because June 19th is my birthdate! To commemorate this date in 2020, I made this video recording to accompany a recording of Jeremy Frisch that clearly demonstrates the frustration felt as a result of the abuse of power by law enforcement officers.
I have done a few interviews over the last few months that I would like to share. Kevin Laskey and I talked in preparation for the unfortunately postponed Claudia-Quintet-Jazz-Gallery-premiere which was supposed to happen in late March. Kevin is a very thoughtful musician and I enjoyed our conversation very much.
Last year, I had the pleasure of working with the Basel Jazz School Focus Year band for a week. Every year this school sponsors and puts together a band that works with guest artists throughout the year. It is an incredible experience for them and the talent level is ridiculous! One of the drummers in the band I worked with was Chase Kuesel. Recently Chase released this essay about our work together. I could not believe how deep he went into it!
Nicola Fazzini and Alessandro Fedrigo have been my musical cohorts and supporters for many years. Their organization, Nusica is a positive force in Italy and Europe. Somehow, they found the time to do this blog interview with me in April!
Recently, I had the pleasure of catching up with one of our most important contemporary music journalists, Steve Smith. You can read our conversation here.
INTRODUCING FLEXATONIC ARTS INC.
The last album in my Songs trilogy, Songs You Like A Lot, was released on August 14th. You can find the recording and info about it here. Arranging well-known music is for sure scary, so it was a relief that one of the first people who heard the record said that listening to new arrangements of these old tunes “reminds me of meeting an old friend in a foreign country.” If you would like a digital copy, but don’t have the means right now during these tough times, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject “NEED SULAL NOW” and we will send you a download code!
This release is the first for Flexatonic Records, which is the label wing of the new 501c3, Flexatonic Arts Inc. that has recently been formed to serve as an organizational headquarters for all of my cultural and educational activities, and a vehicle for embracing the initiatives of like-minded colleagues. Flexatonic is also developing projects and collective-minded mutual support structures in partnership with more than a dozen similarly focused nonprofits and other artists and educators to create viable and sustainable methods within the new environment of artistic expression and education. The lovely karlssonwilker team designed the awesome Flexatonic Records logo above; for context, here is an image of a flexatone.
Flexatonic Records is digitally re-releasing the albums I did as a composer/leader – you can find them on Bandcamp. Until further notice, all profits from these bandcamp sales will go towards Black Lives Matter initiatives. Bandcamp, if you don’t know it already, is by far the friendliest digital platform for musicians. During the pandemic, Bandcamp has and will continue to waive “its revenue share on all sales on the first Friday of every month to give musicians more money from each purchase,” i.e. Bandcamp Fridays! Spotify, by the way is one of the biggest and one of the worst streaming platforms for musicians! Please sign this petition to get Spotify to raise their royalty level to $.01 per stream. Yes, you read that correctly! It is currently only $0.003 per stream.
Another Flexatonic initiative is to get my notated music to y’all.
For years I have been working on this project with Anna Webber(to be clear, Anna did most of the work!) to edit and revise all of the recorded Claudia Quintet music (82 compositions!) so that I can share it with the Claudians or is it Claudiots? It is with delight that I announce that these scores and parts are now available online! You can find full album “Playbooks” on Bandcamp and in the Works section of my website, which is also where you can find the individual compositions. (For some reason I really wanted to write “beloved website”…I think my website feels neglected insert theatrical ~pause~ and sigh.)
To get a taste of these lovely dots on paper, you can see some of Anna’s fine copy work as a “streamable score.” From an early age, I loved to geek out by listening to music as I read the musical score. I’m not a fan of YouTube for its horrendous treatment of musicians, but one of the few good uses of it are to show you “streamable scores.” Enjoy the scores and music of Rainbow Jimmies (commissioned by the Bang On a Can All-Stars), Sinanari, and the above-mentioned “nice tune”. Geek out!
My lovely partner Kate and I are quarantining in Montreal because we just came back from the US. Our quarantine time has coincided with an extreme construction project on our street to replace old water mains. This video is an example of our morning wake-up call with color commentary by yours truly.
Needless to say I have been spending a lot of time every day contemplating how a lot of this work is very similar to the work that I and other children did for fun, specifically, putting dirt in a dump truck, etc. I wonder, is there a downside to this gig? Does the operator have Aha moments when he realizes he is getting paid well to do the same thing he did for fun when he was 5 years old? Does he skip home every day singing “I’ve got the best job in the world!”? I know that I do! I draws dots on paper and hit things that make cool sounds. Thanks for listening, reading, watching. I hope something in this blog helps you in some positive way.
With appreciation, John