Nelson Riddle is generally considered to be one of the great arrangers in the history of American music. He half jokingly stated that, out of all the albums he recorded, “Only The Lonely,” with Frank Sinatra, was his favorite. When asked why, he said that it was because he had had a whole week to work on the charts. When I read that statement in Will Friedwald’s book, “Sinatra! The Song Is You,” many years ago, I marveled at the insane conditions and time constraints that he, and arrangers like Billy May, worked under during the studio recording system of the 1950’s. That Riddle considered it a luxury to have only one week to complete twelve scores for a group consisting of a Jazz big band augmented by orchestral horns and a string section, designed to feature Sinatra’s vocals, completely amazed me. It still does.
Since I read Friedwald’s book in the 1990’s, I have become more involved with composing for a wide range of projects myself- situations ranging from solo material to those involving more than a dozen musicians, for circumstances that have lasted many years to those that occurred on a single occasion. The hard reality of meeting another deadline has become my calendar and clock. More and more of the writing happens in hotel rooms and on trains, since I have less and less time at home in Chicago to accomplish the necessary work. In one case, a flight to Europe was spent transcribing parts for the Territory Band project in Donaueschingen; at another point I needed to use the dashboard of a van as a desk during the drive back to Chicago from Austin. My appreciation for the challenges Riddle faced in getting the music done on deadline grew as my own career presented opportunities that I didn’t want to turn down. Often these possibilities had less than “ideal” working conditions attached to them, getting the necessary results usually meant sacrificing things like regular sleep patterns. Since touring negates the possibility of conventional sleep anyway, the current compositional environments have merely added another interesting layer of complexity to the circumstances of being on the road, playing music.
When I had the opportunity to sit down in that apartment in Krakow during the autumn of 2007, for eight days between November 4th and 11th (not including a trip to Warsaw with Wawrzyn “Laurence” Makinia to listen to Han Bennink and Misha Mengelberg play duo), I came to fully appreciate Nelson Riddle’s feeling about “Only The Lonely.” This was the first and, so far, only time that I have had a full seven days to compose, arrange, and transcribe two sets of music for an ensemble. I had no other obligations- no concerts, rehearsals, meetings, or traveling- just the usual damn email. Each morning I’d get up for coffee and a small breakfast at the Alchemia club; go back to the apartment and write, sketch out forms, work out ideas; take a break for lunch somewhere in the neighborhood; get back to the table to further organize material for the 4 reeds, 3 brass, two percussionists, and bass that would comprise the Resonance Ensemble. Each night I’d spend hours back at Alchemia, writing notes about my impressions of Poland and what Krakow and the people there meant to me.
Of the musicians involved, there were four that I had never worked with (Steve Swell [trombone], Yuri Yaremchuk and Mikolaj Trzaska [reeds], Mark Tokar [bass]). This was the first time I was “writing in the dark,” for players that I didn’t really know, and had only briefly heard. In addition, when the band met for day one of rehearsals, on November 12th, most of the players would be playing together for the first time. It was a project filled with questions, the answers to which would decide if the enterprise would work or fall on its face. If I was able to complete the material on time (thankfully I did, the beauty of the “deadline model of efficiency,” the charts were finished and copied in time for me to meet the arriving participants at Alchemia by midnight of the 11th), would the musicians who I had never worked with understand the way I write (having Dave Rempis in the group was an immense help, he was able to communicate my ideas with other players and answer their questions when I was preoccupied with other details or issues)? Would five days of rehearsals and small group concerts each night give us enough time to prepare the ensemble music, or would we end up burned out and exhausted before the bus ride to Lviv, in the Ukraine, to perform the compositions on the 17th? And, finally, would the material I had put together for this program even work properly? In many, many ways the Resonance project was a huge gamble on the part of everyone involved- people who didn’t know me were trusting that I’d create an exciting vehicle of expression for them; people who did know me were hoping that the time, effort, and expense would translate into something worth having as a permanent document.
Again, the thought of “Riddle’s Week” kept coming to mind. Here was “my week,” and I wanted to deliver on its promise. I feel the time was utilized well- in the compositional, rehearsal, and performance process- and I’m proud of the results. It is very important for me to point out that a large measure of the Resonance Ensemble’s artistic success is due to the other people involved. From an organizational standpoint- Marek Winiarski of Not Two Records who, once again, instigated me; Olek Witynski and Jacek Zakowski who run Alchemia; Ania Czarna Adamska and all the other staff who have worked there; Markian Ivashchishyn in Lviv; Marek Wajda for his design work- but in particular it was the musicians who must be thanked. All of them delivered on the promise of what the Resonance Ensemble could be- their commitment and creativity, their discipline and effort, their belief in the project- meant that seven solitary days in a room translated into this lasting and international document.
-Ken Vandermark, Chicago, July 26, 2009.
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