So here we are: 2016 almost gone, but it feels a little like spring….
First off, I haven’t written a serious blog post in quite some time. Because, you know, I’m “busy” – doing “things“. Like writing and performing music. Or programming synthesizers. Or driving. (I do a lot of driving, for those who are wondering.) Pretty much constantly. Write? Words???
But in actuality I’ve got quite a lot I’ve been wanting to write about. In fact, my wordpress dashboard is littered with drafts – those “wait, I’ve got an idea…!” , fits and starts that don’t get finished but sit on a digital shelf somewhere….and then I’m off. But the ideas are waiting. In fact I’ve got actual notebooks full of ideas. Too many for one lifetime, it seems… but I digress. I’m here, and I’m writing this now.
When my pops told me at age 7 that Mozart wrote his first symphony at age 7, I thought “I can do that!”. And of course at age 7 I fully believed it, putting pen to manuscript paper and writing…something. I remember that at least. I tried my hand at writing a few things here and there. Piano solos mostly, some guitar, and not on paper. Just things I’d make up & remember.
The first big thing I remember trying to write was when I was 14. Inspired by a paperback copy of Clifford D. Simak’s Sci-Fi collection “City”, and thoroughly influenced by prog rock concept albums (this was 1974, after all) I began work – once again, in memory only – on a 20 minute epic entitled – you guessed it – “City”, about a band of intergalactic travelers who on some world or other come upon an enormous abandoned city, many thousands of years old, and their adventures exploring it. Needles to say it was never finished, and I can remember not one note of it.
It’s also important to note at this time that in addition to “Prog” and it’s rich fantasy life I also grew up with classical music and listened to the radio. One of the things that influenced me from the radio around 1972 was Deodato’s jazzy funky arrangement of “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” (more commonly known as the music to Kubrick’s 2001: a space odyssey). I was stricken by the desire to write horn parts, and indeed I did – writing and arranging material for my high school jazz big band in 9th grade, at age 13. Special thanks most be given of course to my incredible HS Music Teacher Burt Hughes, a Nyack NY fixture for many years. When people say the fondly remember or loved a teacher who profoundly influenced their lives, this is what they’re talking about.
So against this backdrop, with many other musical things going on – too many to mention, and way more than I can remember – when I turned 18 I figured it was time to start my own band. And we were gonna need some music. This time I did use manuscript paper, and wrote a whole slew of tunes, some of which are still performed today. At the time I was fascinated by the Mahavishnu Orchestra and free Jazz as played by Ornate and others, and still very much in the grip of Prog rock and classical. The band became known as “A. Animal” in the coming years. The challenge was finding cats who could shift between all the different styles. FYI: That’s STILL the challenge.
The thing is although I never formally studied composition I listened to compositions – a sort of informal study – and tried to understand things from my skewed and fiercely independent perspective. And I kept writing. And writing. All manner of things. Music for Dance (since 1982); Avant Garde Theater (since 1983); and ensembles of various sizes. And in many different styles: Trying to reconcile my diverse influences was sometimes as confusing to me as it undoubtedly appears to those who don’t know me that well. It’s difficult to see the whole picture at once.
Influenced almost in equal parts by Classical, Minimalism, Post-Bop Jazz, Punk Rock, Prog rock, Jazz Fusion, Pop (I credit my lovely wife Nita with hipping me to the art of the Popular song, and because of her have developed a sincere appreciation for “certain things”), Ambient and Electronica as well as the avant grade (Stockhausen? Subotnick? Autechre?), I have chosen to try and squeeze all these things together into something new, something which is my own. And while all these things don’t fit into everything I write, if you scratch below the surface you might hear something unexpected…
What’s the point of all this? October 15th I have a unique opportunity. I’ll be presenting some work in a show at the Ritz Theater in Newburgh NY (where my family & I have been residing for the last 17+ years). Some of these compositions have never made it to the stage. Things that I wrote for projects, or choreographers, or friends, or because I damn well felt like it. It feels sometimes like not too many people know the full breadth of what I actually do. I flip back and forth between original groups (like NAIL), or traditional jazz quartets, or funk outfits or music for dance, and those audiences generally do not overlap. So I’m truly excited and thrilled to have a place to put this diverse concert up. With me will be some amazing players, some old friends, some new – but all open minded, ready to embrace the diversity of music as a whole. They are:
Peter Furlan (sax)
Peter Brendler (bass)
Nadav Snir-Zelniker (drums)
Mark Frankel (percussion, marimba)
Daniel Frankhuizen (cello)
Rachel Evans (viola)
Cynthia Ligenza (violin)
Fung Chern Hwei (violin)
With special guests Tom Reese (flute & pennywhistle) and Mona Toscano (spoken word).
As the music varies in style and texture, so does the orchestration. Some pieces will be performed by a traditional Jazz quartet; others, by strings and percussion; others still with electronic instruments. The ensemble is variable – and thus represented as “X” it seemed only fitting to christen this new collection of musicians & music the “X Ensemble”. (also the name jumped out at me because I keep the scores in a folder called “extended ensemble”).
I must say I’m completely thrilled to premiere these works and this new group. It’s been a long road the “here” – to unity & integration. I suspect there’s a ways to go yet, but this certainly feels like a milestone. I hope you can join us.
P.S. Here’s a great previewof the show written by our good friend and incredible songwriter John Burdick. John leads the New Paltz based “Sweet Clementines“, who I consider to be one of the best local bands out there. See them when you can.
Notes:The Ritz Theater of Newburgh presents: A very special evening of Jazz and Chamber Music featuring the music of pianist & composer Neil Alexander with the Neil Alexander Quartet and special guests.
The players include the Neil Alexander Quartet (Peter Furlan, sax; Peter Brendler, Bass; Nadav Zelniker, drums, plus Fung Chern Hwei (violin), Rachel Evans (violin & viola), Mark Frankel (percussion & marimba), and special guests Tom Reese (flute & Penny whistle) and Mona Toscano (spoken word).
Among the pieces scheduled to be performed are 2 world premiers – “Gravity Well” for violin & piano and “The Inner Journey” (originally composed for a choreographer) along with “Cumberland Spring”, an arrangement of Gershwin’s “Lullaby for Strings” and a very special performance of Neil’s 2002 4 movement Jazz Suite titled “Newburgh: An Urban Romance”.
A Long Overdue Concert for an Old Friend Gone Too Soon
Hi folks –
I’m starting a series of posts here chronicling the preparation for and performance of a memorial concert for my friend Jim Decrescenzo, who passed away Sept 5th of this year at the age of 56.
I’ve known Jim since I was 19 or so (actually, it’s a bit hazy), and he, Lou Magliente & I formed the basis of what was to become my first and longest running band, “A. Animal“.
Deke was a brilliant cat, and a real down to earth guy. The kind of guy who’d give you the shirt off his back if he thought you needed it. For the last 18 years or so he’s been living in Woodstock NY, making a name for himself as an expert woodworker and craftsman. But what most of hinds friends don’t know (or at least I don’t think they know – I can’t actually say because I haven’t met most his current friends) was that Jim was an AMAZING composer & musician. In or around 1981, Jim chose to give up music. His wonderful compositions were never performed. Now with his his passing and the blessing of his family, I have undertaken the task of performing Jim’s music in concert. This concert is happening in Woodstock NY on Wednesday November 19th – a memorial concert, if you will. The stellar band (handpicked by me – yes, I’m blowing my own horn here) includes musicians I know Jim would have appreciated – Brian Mooney (bass); Jason Furman (drums), Chad McLoughlin (guitar). Some of Jim’s tunes require more than 4 musicians, and for those pieces we’ll be joined by Ted Orr (guitar) and longtime friend Steve Rust (bass). Plus there’s 2 vocal tunes which I will be singing. All together there are 7 tunes – 5 instrumental and 2 vocal – and including such old favs as “The Sorcerer’s Ranch”, “Box 555”, “Trainride” and “Pines”. (If you low these tunes, believe me – you’ll want to hear them live.)
First rehearsal of Jimmy Deke’s music, with Jason Furman, Brian Mooney, Chad McLoughlin and Neil Alexander
When Jim gave up music he handed me a folder of his handwritten scores – they were exact & beautiful, s Jim was also learning music copying. I kept these scores safe until I saw Jim again in 2005, almost 25 years later. I did see Jim once in the 1990’s – before our daughter was born – and knew then he had become a woodworker and had a child of his own. But it was very brief, and we lost touch again. In the interim, around 2001, I decided to produce one of Jim’s tunes, because 1) I loved his music and 2) it’s a great tune. Here’s a rough mix on Soundcloud:
When I finally did reconnect with Jim, we rekindled our friendship and although I tried to help him get back into music, he wasn’t able to find his way back…
In addition to his scores, there were the tapes: All of his tunes he had recorded and a Tascam 3440 4 track reel to reel. I had mix downs of his tracks on cassette tapes, which I’ve been holding on to for decades. When I got in touch with Jim’s family, they expressed to me that they wanted to be able to distribute CD’s of Jim’s music to give out at the memorial concert. I agreed to take the tapes, have them transferred to digital, mix master & produce the, That’s still in progress as I write this.
In part 2 I will talk about the completion of the process. When the CD’s are done I will make them available for download via Bandcamp. Stay tuned for that.
Part 2 coming soon. As Always, thanks for reading. 🙂
Notes:Jim Decrescenzo: A celebration of his Life & Work, with a concert of his music never before perfumed in public.
Please join us for a very special night celebrating the Life & Work of a dear old friend – Jimmy Decrescenzo, “Deke”, who passed away on September 5th of this year. Deke was a member of my first original band (which eventually went on to become “A. Animal”). A bassist & composer, we often joked how he had the real talent. At age 20 he was writing amazingly complex pieces. But he chose to give up music and sadly none of his compositions have ever been performed.
On Wednesday November 19th, Family and friends will gather at Harmony Music Woodstock NY to reminisce, swap stories and celebrate the man and his work. Deke was an excellent woodworker; some of his works will be on display as well as video of him in his shop, and I have assembled a stellar band to finally perform Jim’s music. The band includes bassist Brian Mooney, Drummer Jason Furman, and guitarist Chad McLoughlin, along with horn man Peter Buettner, guitarist Ted Orr & bassist Steve Rust. In addition, the wonderful Joey Eppard will perform solo and with his group. There is no cover. I hope you can join us. 🙂
As the saying goes, “Be careful what you wish for”. I’ve tried to take that philosophy to heart, and to focus my heart & mind on where I want to be and what I’d like to be doing, in the best possible scenario. If the month of June is any indication, then I’d have to say it’s starting to really pay off.
The title of this post is “8 in 1“, and it refers to what might be for me a new record – 8 bands in one month! (Actually, I highly doubt it’s a record because I’ve done this sort of thing before. But this time there’s a key difference. More on this later.)
Let me be a tad bit clearer: by “band”, I mean a specific performing situation. This can be a traditional band (drums, guitar and so forth) or a non traditional “ensemble” such as the show I did with Decora – synths/loops (me), a DJ and a drummer.
I’ve been building to this for a long time, ever since I left “The Machine“, the Pink Floyd Tribute I was in for 10 years, in 2006. (My friend, bassist Keith Macksoud, lovingly referred to them as “La Machine, the food processing band”. Some of you older folk will get this joke.) The Machine was, from 1996-2006, my primary gig. What happened before that is very long and complex, and material for another post altogether, but involved a large number of bands, often at the same time, starting with “A. Animal” in 1978 and ending with “Neil Alexander & NAIL“, which I disbanded in 2011. From 2012 to 2013 I focused on my solo piano CD & tour.
At the beginning of this year, or actually the end of last year, I realized I wanted – and needed – to go back to ensemble work. I had worked with various groups in the interim, but mostly “pick-up” gigs and not anything I was particularly committed to. There are always ongoing relationships in my world, and those continued. I did quite a few jazz gigs; played with “Blue Food” (a funk band based in Woodstock NY), did High School musical theater pit work, and more. But after disbanding NAIL for “lack of interest” (not mine but the audience, apparently) I had nothing of mine – nothing uniquely personal – to go back to, musically speaking, and nothing I was particularly invested in. Well then: a fresh start was needed. (In reality, this is still in progress. Stay with me here…)
Another thing that transpired in my universe, starting in 2011 or so, was a long overdue (that’s up for debate) move away from the “Small mobile rig controlled from a single keyboard worn on a strap” that I had completely focused on for 15+ years. During that time I had taken that concept as far as I could musically and technologically. In addition to running out of room (physically, on the short keyboard) and having my main axe be a “plastic piece of junk” (sorry Roland – your AX7 is fun to play but just ain’t built well), I found a subliminal attitude among my fellow musicians: they were not really taking me seriously. In hindsight this is understandable. In the interest of “not carrying around this much crap ever again” I had abandoned my many years of work with a multi-keyboard setup, years of practice in on the spot orchestration. It was a skill I’d developed over years, and I’d forgotten I had it.
One of the other bands I was in after leaving “the Machine” was (is) “The Mahavishnu Project” (2008 to the present), fronted by drummer/composer Gregg Bendian. This was for me a quinteseential experience – I grew up with, loved and worked on this music for many years, and now I was getting to perform it, in front of an appreciative audience, and actually get paid. (!) But there was no way I could do this gig on the AX7 remote MIDI controller (commonly reffered to as a “keytar”; I bristle when I hear that word) that was my tehcnological focus for so long. I woud need a real rig, what I came to call a “traditional” rig – and more importantly, a real analog synthesizer.
I have a good friend from Long Island NY – let’s call him “Mr. Smith” – who is a fan from the Machine days. Mr Smith is also an Analog Synth enthusiast, and a bit of a collector. He had this curious habit (for which I am eternally grateful) of showing up at my gigs with something from his collection – usually an immaculately maintained original Minimoog, the “holy grail” of performance synths – hoping to hear his instrument played, apparently, by an expert. As someone who has spent most of my adult life in love with synthesizers, I was perhaps uniquly qualified to deliver the goods, and he recognized this. At the time I owned a non working ARP 2600 and a Sequential Circuits Pro One. When I started touring with the Mahavishnu Project it became apparent I would need something more robust.
For one thing, a Minimoog-type instrument was essential to this music – the sound has to cut, and it has to be playable in that style, well built and with hearty controls. Nothing I owned really fit that bill. In actuallity I had no need for it previously – it was an expensive investment into instruments that had no effects built in and could only play one note at a time. (But O that sound…!) I used whatever keyboards I could – usually my Kurzweil PC88 controller, a recently acquired Roland VK-7M Organ module (with drawbars) and the Pro One. Sufficient, but ultimimately unsastisfying. Meanwhile, during this time, our intrepid Mr Smith would periodically whisper in my ear “I think you should go back to playing a traditional rig“. I can’t remember how many times he said this, but during my time wth the Mahavishnu Project a light bulb went of and I said “you know, perhaps you’re right!!”
I went thru the process of acquiring a real “trad” rig – first selling everything I wasn’t going to use or that wasn’t road worhty, like the ARP 2600. (I’m not a collector you see – I need gear that will hold up under fire, and the older instruments just aren’t made that well). I sold enough gear and rasied the money to by a Nord Electro 3 and a Moog Voyager (the updated version of the Minimoog). I also scored an endorsement with Moog Music – my first and only instrument endorsement. So now I had the tools, and the door was open. The AX7 came off the strap and went on the stand as controller for the Roland Module I had long used (XV5080, also swaped out for an XV5050. I have years worth of custom programmed sounds I didn’t want to give up, including all of those glorious guitar sounds).
After the first few gigs with the new rig I had to laugh. It was like going back to 1977 with a Rhodes and a Minimoog, the place where it all started for so many of my keyboard playing peers. (It even opened up the possibility of doing something my friend Steve Lawson suggested – using a processed Fender Rhodes electric piano, without the heartache and backache of carrying a real one around.)
Back to 2014: The Solo Piano tour/CD/exploration is now complete; I’m looking to get back to ensemble work. NAIL – which was based in part around the use of the AX7 and it’s accompanying playing style – were finished. I was using this new rig on every gig I was called to do, and loving it. I replaced the AX7 with an A37 – essentially the same instrument (a keyboard controller) but a 76 key version, much more suited to sitting down.
Also during my Mahavishnu Project tenure I met saxophonist, educator and composer Peter Furlan. Introduced by our mutual friend Pete Salo(photographer), it was immidietaly apparent that Peter F & I had a lot of common ground. We began to do a variety of things together, including his sextet, a trio and our duo project “Le Jazz Electronique” in which I make extensive use of Ableton LIVE in an improvising context. (I’ve been using Ableton for years now – check out my user group page here.)
Looking to become involved with a somewhat lucrative project, I began to toss ideas around with different folk. One of those folk was Peter Furlan and one of those ideas was “Mr. Gone“, a band focusing on the same 1970’s/80’s era Jazz Fusion stuff I knew and loved, but concetrating on the GROOVE side of that music, as opposed to the “everything in odd time sigantures & lots of unison lines” stuff. The most well known and longest running of those groups was Weather Report, so we are in effect a “Weather Report Tribute”.
Late in 2013 I got a call from some very nice people in NJ who call themselves “Piktor’s Metamorphosis“. My friend Glenn Alexander (guitarist) recommended me to them. Seems their keyboard player had gotten himself a full time teaching gig, and would it be possible for me to do the 2 shows they still had on the books? Oh, and the tunes are Return To Forever, Pat Mehtney Group, David Sancious and Mahavishnu. Just my cup of tea. And how fortunate that I’m now using a traditional rig… 🙂
Another relatonship I had developed over the last few years was with drummer Ray Levier, a great drummer and practically the nicest cat you’ll ever meet. We have an ongoing duo thing called “Red Slider” in which we were BOTH using Ableton LIVE, syncing our laptops togther on stage and generally having a good time with it. Ray periodically calls me for his gigs, usually at one of his regualar spots.
Meanwhile, Pete Furlan had introduced me to another bandleader/singer Rick Oberson and the Flying Obersons. Rick has an ecyclopedic knowledge of Rock ‘n Roll, including progressive rock and a lot of other things. I moved into the sub spot for his regular guy. Good! Work is work.
The “Thunderhead Organ Trio” is another group based on a long standing relationship. In this case it evlved out of The Bean Runner Jazz Project, orignally assmebled by trombonist Joe Gil with his friend Premik Russel Tubbs (whom I met thru the Mahavishnu Project). The Bean Runner project was a 5 pice band, and while great fun, it always seemed to be tough to get everyone together. As a trio, belive me – scheduling is much easier. And again, my traditional rig comes to full bear, allowing me to orchestrate, hilight, explore and just generally have a great time with the music.
Many other situations had, by this point, come on and gone. Another one that is still active is Aleah Long‘s group “En Full Circle“.
And finally, I was recruited for something I had never done before: playing behind a rap artist. Decora is a Newburgh based poet and rapper with extraodrinary talent, and his vision put me along side a DJ and drummer. It was a brand new way of working for me, and I was genuinley thrilled and excited to explore this new prospect.
On top of all this, I was able to add a short solo performance on June 28th, which I called “NAILgun“.
So there it is: A culmination of many years worth of work, groups, gear – and the slow whittling away of “unessecary” things, or things that just did not make me happy. And now the magic begins to work; the phone, which has pretty much contunued to ring (thank heavens) with all manner of music work now delivers one musically satisfying situation after another – till we arrive at what I can only think of as a sort of “personal critical mass”, where all this comes together to mean a month full of work, spread over 8 different situations, all of which I’m thrilled to be a part of. Here’s the list:
Aleah Long & En Full Circle Decora Mr Gone (2 shows) NAILgun – Solo show Piktor’s Metamorphosis Ray Levier & Friends Thunderhead Organ Trio The Flying Obersons
I am savoring this moment, because I’ve worked for it – and wished for it. I’ve been moving, concsiously or unconciously, in this direction for quite some time, and I feel like I’m actually getting somewhere.
A lot can happen in a month – and at any time really – and I have no idea what’s coming next. But if this is any indication then I think it’s gonna be alright. 🙂
Today’s “tales from the back catalogue” concerns an unreleased recording that I produced in 2002. My family and I had just relocated to Newburgh New York, in the spring of 1999. Newburgh has one of the largest historic districts in the state, and it’s charm was very appealing. We had been spending considerable time getting to know the local artistic community which was composed mostly of visual artists, sculptures, poets and a few other folk. Nita & I seemed to be the only music people. We were taken with the whole scene.
Then 9/11 happened, and we responded as artists – with new works & collaborations. I began collaborating with Hudson Valley poet Mona Toscano. Together we worked on a project for CAP – Community Arts For Peace. We received a small grant for new work. My contribution was “Newburgh: An Urban Romance’. We held a reception and performance at our house – in effect a House Concert before I had even heard of the term as it is used today.
In the audience that day was a young film maker named Merle Becker, who was at that time making a film called “Saving Newburgh” about the political trials and tribulations that I had not yet become aware of. She expressed an interest in using some part of the music in her film, so I went about the task of organizing a group, rehearsing & recording the piece.
Ultimately the music was not used in the film and the finished recording “sat on the shelf” as it were, since 2003 when I went ahead and made a final mix & master with my longtime friend and engineer Ryan Ball. Releasing it on physical CD was an expensive proposition at the time; plus I have my reservations about the work – I’m not happy with the overall quality of my playing, I couldn’t get the band I wanted and there were other problems etc. – so there it sat.
I continue to work with Mona fairly regularly and at a recent performance she asked me about the Newburgh recording. I decided then to post it up on Bandcamp. It’s a piece from my past, and I’m not really the same person anymore – there’s a lot I would differently today – but it’s a completed work. And thanks to the magic of the modern internet & it’s available tools for music promotion, it can finally be brought to light. Plus it’s my only “Jazz Suite” to date, inspired by Duke Ellington and that style. Thanks for listening.
In 1966, a boy sat in a movie theater & watched the evolution of life and the rise and fall of the dinosaurs, accompanied by incredible music. The film was Walt Disney’s “Fantasia”, the music, Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” and the young boy was Neil Alexander – me. The pounding rhythms and striking dissonances etched themselves into my subconscious, influencing & informing my musical life for decades to come.
Looking back on this now, it’s obvious to see how amazingly influential it has been. Look at the stuff I like: Mahavishnu, ELP, Progressive Rock, 20th Century classical music, Prehistoric culture – the list goes on.
In light of the Centennial of this game changing – and life changing – piece of music, I am gloriously proud to be bringing the “100 Years Of Spring” project back to my “home turf”, The Hudson Valley.
“100 Years of Spring” was originally conceived as a live music program appearing in farm/food markets and other places notable for enhancing environmental sustainability. These performances represent an effort to bring music, originally directed at audiences of elite society, to places of public gathering where social division is less significant. “100 Years of Spring”, seeks to honor the centennial of the premiere while connecting the concept of spring with sustainability and local food & farms. To further that end, I have partned with Common Ground Farms and made this performance a fundraiser. I’ve been a long time supporter of Common Ground Farm and former member of their initial Community Supported Agriculture program.
Common Ground Farm, a community staple for many years, evolved as an organization to become a nonprofit farm project growing food for education and food justice programs. “Our education programs, workshops, and Summer Camp bring children and adults opportunities to learn about sustainable farming, local food, and environmental stewardship.” This summer the Farm’s Mobile Market – staffed by the Green Teens — is traveling the area bringing low cost, CGF- grown vegetables to low income housing areas. Children who might otherwise go without are receiving regular lunches from the Kids ‘R Kids Summer Feeding Program, which includes donated vegetables from the Farm as well as activities for the kids each week with a local chef. The Farm is regularly delivering vegetables for Salvation Army Lunches and to the St. Andrew’s & St. Luke’s Food Pantry. The Farm’s Food Justice programs make local, organically grown, fresh produce available to everyone, regardless of income.
The performance takes place on August 10th at the Howland Cultural Center, 477 Main Street in Beacon NY. The HCC is a well known venue for community sponsored events, concerts AND great chamber music, so it seemed the obvious choice. In addition, my very good friend violinist Rachel Evans will be joining my to perform an original composition of mine.
Common Ground Farm is a community resource; all are welcome to visit the fields, volunteer, learn, and gather together for the common good. You can learn more about the Farm’s mission and programs at their website http://www.commongroundfarm.org, by calling (845) 231-4424 or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. “100 Years of Spring” is a sponsored project of Artspire, a program of New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA), a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization. www.100yearsofspring.org.
100 Years Of Spring: Solo Piano incl. The Rite Of Spring
It’s Tuesday May 28th. Tomorrow, Wednesday May 29th, will be exactly 100 years since Igor Stravinsky’s “Rite Of Spring” premiered in Paris at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées in Paris, with choreography from Vaslav Nijinsky. The infamous riot (or whatever actually happened – look it up, it’s debatable that it was an actual riot) is now a part of our collective consciousness.
The stories & details of this event are numerous and can easily be found around the web, so I will not bother with reproducing or quoting them here. But I do want to speak briefly about my connection with the musical part of the work, which goes back to 1967. I was 7 years old, and my parents took the family to see Walt Disneys “Fantasia” – a film which had it’s original premiere in 1940 (Wikipedia Article). Why it was being shown again I can probably guess, but the seeds were sown: The now iconic footage of the formation of the Earth and prehistoric life – namely Dinosaurs – was the stuff of every boys dream.
My dad was an ametuer classical pianist, so there was a Chickering Baby Grand Piano in the house, and music was on the stereo. No surprise here: I wanted a copy of that music! I was given an LP of the complete piece. At the time, I didn’t know that the producers of “Fantasia” had cut and resequenced parts of the “Rite” so that it was considerably different from the original version. All I knew, at age 7 was “This isn’t it….it’s different”. I put the record away; and while my memories of that first film experience still resonate, it would be years before I found myself in the company of the work again.
Fast forward: 1977-ish. I’m in High School. There seems to be TONS of great music EVERYWHERE: The airwaves are flooded with tunes and everyday someone hands me something great to listen to. I’ve been playing piano now for 9 years or so, and have made some (what were to me) incredible discoveries about the music I liked and it’s history. Deodato’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra” was a big influence, and a big radio hit at the time. I asked my current piano teacher to help me learn it, and it sparked an interest in arranging which I realized by arranging some music for my HS Jazz band – in 9th grade. I was 13. Also during this time, someone gave me a copy of Mahavishnu’s “Birds of Fire”. I didn’t understand it, but… there was something about it, some kind of connection.
After that, as a keyboard player, it was a short trip to progressive rock where keyboards actually had some meaning. Bands Like ELP,Genesis and Yes were central to what I thought was “cool”. King Crimson’s “Larks Tongues in Aspic” and Starless & Bible Black rounded up the hard edged composed music aesthetic. Soon after I rediscovered the Mahavishnu Orchestra – even more complex and exciting – and thru it Miles Davis. The whole of Jazz came flooding after, it’s complex harmonic language which I later learned was directly influenced by the “Rite Of Spring.”
Classical music had always been an underscore thru this time – Beethoven, Liszt, Chopin, Tchaikovsky – some of the biggies. But it wasn’t until my late teens that I began to see the other stuff – Bartok’s String Quartets & concerto for Orchestra; Scriabin, Hindemith, Ives – and Stravinsky came Roaring back. And When I say Roaring… for several years the ritual was to point the speakers out the window on the first day of spring and play “The Rite” as loud as the system would go. Oh yeah, baby. It was AWESOME.
Fast forward again: 1982. Struggling in NYC; didn’t finish High School, didn’t go to college. Parents divorced. No family support. Just my music to hold on to…
During this time I received as a birthday gift a copy of the Rite for Piano 4 hands. At the time I had a fledgling interest in prehistoric culture, driven by a fascination with places like Stonehenge & Newgrange (in Ireland). Suddenly I had in front of me the Complete Rite Of Spring – and its original scenarios and meanings captured my imagination.
I had begun to play for Dance Classes at NYU around this time; and while I didn’t really know much about the ballet – or that there even WAS a ballet – I quickly learned. I continued to work with dancers and choreographers. I learned of all the major version: Pina Bausch, Martha Graham, Paul Taylor, and various balletic versions. But for my money, the Joffrey Ballet‘s reconstruction of Nijinsky’s original choreography is to me the most visceral, the most powerful. A fascinating documentary exists, “The search for Nijinsky’s Rite of Spring” that describes the reconstruction and ends with a video of the performance from 1987.
This whole situation strikes me as a sort of “fractal” – reconstructing the Rite, which is itself reconstructing things from Prehistory; and my connection with so called “progressive” & avant-garde music of which the “Rite” played such a huge part in both harmonically & rhythmically; and my subsequent work with Dance, that part of the premiere that is oft overlooked. It locks together music & events in my life into what is for me a startling mosaic.
My story from there is a little more well known, documented in press releases and reviews of my performances. All of this has culminated in my current “100 Years Of Spring” project, and I am thrilled to be performing this work in the year of it’s centennial. While I have no actual performance scheduled for May 29th, I will be celebrating with a trip to the Nicholas Roerich Museum in NYC. Nicholas Roerich has the distinction of working with Igor Stravinsky to create the sets and tableaus for the original storyline of The Rite – “Le Sacre Du Printemps” – in which a primitive pagan russian tribe celebrates the return of spring, and ends with a sacrifice as a young maiden dances herself to death.
I hope to continue and “Dance the work to Life” as my performances continue into the next year, with my next show in Los Angeles on June 16th. If you’re in the area, I hope you’ll come join me in celebrating this masterpiece.
It’s finally here: “Darn That Dream Solo Piano Vol. 1”, my first official solo piano album. A long time in coming, this recording represents a very significant milestone for me. This post gives a little backstory and a little about my process. This is Part 1.
This record took almost 2 years to go from the recording session to the final product. Part of that was simply not having enough time to finish the things I needed to do – buying licenses for the standards, or setting up the mastering; editing the artwork, etc – but a more significant part of it was grappling with my fear of failing – or more specifically, not measuring up to my unrealistically high expectations. Many decades of listening to 1st class piano music will do that to you. How could I possibly hope to compete? The only way I could actually complete this process is to let go of all that and make something much more personal. I feel I’ve accomplished this, and although the lingering fear, now mostly habit, still floats around my head and makes me overcautious, I am proud to present you with this recording.
Part 1 – A Story Telling
My first connection to music was thru the piano. When I was 6, we moved out of NYC to the suburbs. My family bought a house on a cul-du-sac in one of those new developments, the kind of houses the song “little boxes on a hillside/and they’re all made out of ticky-tacky” was written about. It seemed like a big old house to me, however, coming from a small apartment in NYC. We had very little furniture to fill what seemed to me to be a gigantic living room. And then one day it appeared: The black Chickering & Sons baby grand piano that I learned to play on. That piano became my friend, my confident, my escape, my lover, my universe.
My dad got the piano because he loved to play; mostly Beethoven & Chopin (from what I remember). I remember hearing about Mozart – how he had written his first sonatina at age 7. I was 6, and fully convinced I could do the same. I plucked out some kind of melody and insisted my dad help me write it down. In my mind, I was Mozart… yet somehow I knew that that was a much larger world to explore. It was decided I should take lessons.
One of the earliest pieces I learned to play was the 2nd movement from Beethoven’s “Pathetique” sonata. My father taught it to me note for note. Years later he admitted that I could play it better than he could. All I really remember is spending hours & hours at the piano. We lived on a suburban cul-de-sac and that meant stickball, kickball and a variety of other games were always happening. I did play a lot – kicking the ball over the house on the other side of the circle was always a big challenge – but I also chose to spend a lot of time indoors at the piano. My 1st teacher didn’t work out so great, so another was found – Mr. Printz. I studied with him for 5 – 6 years. Under his tutelage I learned the ins & outs of basic harmony; was introduced to jazz greats like Oscar Peterson (thru jazz studies books), and had the opportunity to learn anything I wanted – all I need to do was ask.
I remember Deodato’s ”Prelude” album had a big effect on me (remember the funky version of “2001”?), and by age 13 I had composed & arranged a tune for my High School Big Band. I was hooked on music. During this time my parents marriage fell apart. They fought constantly. I stayed in my room, or at the piano whenever possible. By age 16 I was gigging fairly regularly, and was cutting high school to stay home and practice. Another key moment came when I first heard Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side Of The Moon”. I knew then that music was my best option in life, and I could not wait to get into the studio and start making records. (That would have to wait until 1990, 27 years later when my band “A. Animal” recorded our first CD “Overhaul”.)
So why a nearly 40 year delay in recording a solo piano CD? And how did I get back to it? As already stated, I started with piano. My first electric Keyboard was a Fender Rhodes Electric Piano, 73 Stage Mark I. (I still have it..!)
I had, early on, made up my mind to always include some piano on any CD I would release. Those few tentative tracks can be found on “Overhaul” (1990), Alone At Last (1996) and Galvanized (2004).
I had always dreamed of doing a solo piano record – hence the title, “Darn That Dream” – but listening to records by people like Keith Jarret, Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson and the great classical masters like Van Cliburn, Vladimir Horowitz & Glenn Gould (among many others) I always felt like my own work could never match up. As my friend composer/pianist Richard Cameron Wolfe once said to me, “a little bit of competition there, eh?” Geez. Part of my trepidation was that I didn’t fit comfortably into a particular style – I was not a “Jazz Pianist”, or a “Prog Rock” keyboardist, or a Classical musician. I did, however, wear all those hats at one time or another – preferably at the same time.
Meanwhile, I was constantly playing for dance classes – first in NYC (1982-1989) and then at SUNY Purchase (1992 till today), and that meant I was playing the acoustic piano constantly, in the wide variety of styles needed to accompany both Ballet & Modern Dance.
It was during my time at Purchase, in 2001, when former Masters Student and teacher Jill Echo said to me “you should make a solo piano CD. I would buy it.”
Jill & I had worked together in class, and she was a great appreciator of music. Somehow, even though it had been said to me before, it just…stuck. It took up residence in a forgotten corner of my subconscious and refused to budge.
A 2nd arc was happening around the same time, as later that year I premiered my solo piano arrangement of Stravinsky’s “Rite Of Spring” – first for the Conservatory faculty (read a review here) and then in a series of local performances, none of which were well attended. I knew I was going to have to record it at some point, though I was experiencing the same insecurity regarding recording. This was before I learned what REALLY goes on in the classical recording world these days, with literally thousands of edits..!
Meanwhile, I was trying to run NAIL around the rigorous touring schedule of a different band. This was taking up most of my time; that plus various other factors led to a decision to leave the touring group and focus on NAIL. This resulted in a CD in 2007 [“Tugging At The Infinite”] and a full gig schedule. However, I still felt like I was spinning my wheels. Then in 2010 I turned 50 – and I released “the train doesn’t go backwards, or stop” – basically that “we ain’t getting’ any younger!!” So I made the decision to put the band on hold (while I reflected on what wasn’t working), and went ahead with plans to record my first Solo Piano CD.
That’s it for part 1. Part 2 will follow in a week or so. Thanks for reading. You can download the new CD here.
100 Years Of Spring: Solo Piano incl. The Rite Of Spring
This is the story of my ongoing personal journey with one of the most iconoclastic pieces of music in history… Igor Stravinsky’s “Rite Of Spring”, the piece that caused a now famous riot at it’s premier in 1913.
My journey started when I went to see Walt Disney’s “Fantasia” at age 7. I was completely captivated by the music/image combination. It stuck with me something fierce. I’m not even sure I was playing piano yet, but I remember asking my dad for a recording of the piece (on vinyl, of course!).
Many years later in 1982, I received the 4 hand score (Stravinsky’s rehearsal score) as a birthday present. I was 22. An informal performance at New York University followed in 1984, with fellow pianist Bradley Kaus. Still entranced by the piece and not wanting to let it go, I started kicking the score around – exploring both parts – and this is when I began the process of casually “squeezing” it down to 2 hands.
I was really interested in the orchestral power of this amazing piece of music. As I worked towards a completed 2 hand score, I realized what I was trying to do was bring the Orchestral “experience” of the piece to the piano. i did the 4 hand score again, with Pianist Roberto Pace in 1995 for the Purchase Dance Corps. I continued to work on a 2 hand version, more for my own enjoyment then as a performance piece.
in 1999 I moved to Orange County and met quite a few musicians right away. One of them was Flautist Lynette Benner, who was programming classical shows at the Howland Cultura Center in Beacon NY, right across the river from me. “I’ve got it about 70% percent completed,” I told her. She said “Great! We’d like you to perform it in about 6 months”.
Gulp! Probably the best thing, tho – forced me to finish my arrangement and get it going. The thing I remember most about that 1st performance is that I was SO nervous, I thought I was gonna toss my cookies. 🙂 (Note: It took 15 years to cull the initial arrangement….1984 – 1999.)
The show was great fun, and a serious pianistic workout.
I also performed it in a private setting for the SUNY Purchase Conservatory of Dance Faculty. In attendance was an undergrad student, Jonathan Reidel. He was given the assignment of writing a “review” of sorts, for credit.Here’s that review:
A séance was held this past Thursday at 3 p.m. in studio J of the Dance Building at Purchase College. Primordial forces of Pangean proportion were channeled through pianist NEIL ALEXANDER as he single handedly (well, there were two hands and a foot involved) interpreted Stravinsky’s “The Rite Of Spring”.
The piece that originally moved its audience to riot during its premier in Paris at the beginning of the Twentieth Century was originally intended as a ballet score to conjure images of primitive man, tribal reverence for nature, and ritual human sacrifice. It was subsequently brought forth visions in animated film of prehistoric Earth; molten, cooling, plates shifting, mountains erupting skyward, the evolution of species, their reign and cataclysmic extinction.
This is a formidable amount of energy to pass through an orchestra. The present question, posed in Studio J on Thursday, is what happens to such sonic energy when bottlenecked through a solo instrument? Neil Alexander will tell you that it must gush and stream out the other end like water through a fire-hose.
Clever transcription, first by Stravinsky himself for a four handed piano version, then by Alexander for solo performance, has kept much of the original depth and dynamics of the symphonic version alive. All of the thunderous crashes, floral flourishes, stomping rhythms and tidal pulls are represented. The monochromatic aspect of this version (dealing solely with the timbre of the piano) does not leave us wanting. What is lost from not having the other instruments represented is in the intrinsic connotations that they provide (a bird-like flute, a majestic French horn); what is gained is a broader interpretation of The Rite’s gestures and sweeps. Perhaps the Chaos and beauty is all in the mind of one figure. Maybe the setting is now that of film-noir. There are sections that even sound jazz-infused, yet seem in keeping with the stylistic continuity. The transcription is as “monochromatic” as Picasso’s Guernica; a piece many people forget is in gray-scale.
Purists may cringe, claiming that that the concept of a piano reduction is only meant for ballet rehearsals. But this piece was made for riots and I believe Mr. Alexander will welcome them.
Jonathan Riedel, Purchase Dance Corps
Jonathan has since gone on to start his own Dance company, Riedel Dance Theater. We stayed in touch; I would jokingly bug him about doing “Sacre” with his company.
I continued to perform the piece sporadically for about 3 years, and finally had “had enough”. It’s a bit hard on the hands. Besides, I wanted to move on to other things. And as it seems with all (or most) of my shows, no matter how much promo I did attendance was lite. I guess maybe I was expecting – hoping – that it would generate interest on it’s merits alone.
I did get one really good review out of it, from one of the last performances in 2002. Here’s that review:
>Neil Alexander rediscovers The Rite of Spring for solo piano
> Leslie Gerber, Woodstock Times
More than a quarter of a century ago, in l976, I traveled up to Arkviile to hear a piano recital. In this most unlikely location, and on a less than ideal piano, the composer and pianist Frederic Rzewski played one of the most memorable piano recitals I’ve ever heard. For virtuosity and musical comprehension and for the chance to hear Rzewski’s masterpiece, the People United will Never Be Defeated, that afternoon remains in my mind as one of the most unusual and satisfying piano performances in my experience.
I had to wait until last Friday evening for a similar experience, and it was even more unexpected. Neil Alexander is a jazz pianist and synthesizer player. When he played Friday night at the Uptown in Kingston, he introduced himself by saying that he usually performed behind a wall of electronic equipment. But he was going relatively naked, with just an acoustic piano, because of his love for Stravinsky’s orchestral score The Rite of Spring. For the past fifteen years, Alexander told us, he has been working on a piano solo arrangement of this music, and he was finally ready to perform it the first time two years ago. “Don’t “expect too much from me,” he said with excessive modesty. ~I’m no Vladimir Horowitz.” Well, he was right about that. Horowitz could never have performed this music the way Alexander did it.
The Rite of Spring is an extremely complex piece, with thick and often dissonant harmonies and irregular jagged rhythms more the rule than the exception. It’s difficult enough for a good orchestra to play it well. Alexander has truly nailed the piece in his piano arrangement. He’s got the harmonies I and the rhythms, the textures of the music, accurately and lovingly reduced to the piano keyboard. The color of Stravinsky’s orchestration is missing (although Alexander’s playing had excellent tonal coloration, despite the limits of another less than ideal piano), but the rhythmic and harmonic aspects of the music are clarified in this arrangement.
And best of all, Alexander played the music with amazing command. Some parts of the score are inherently unpianistic, but those fifteen years of work really showed in the way Alexander managed to transcribe and play them so accurately and with such exciting force. In short, this was a riveting experience, world class playing all the way. The dozen or so people scattered around the Uptown shared in a great musical experience, one I won’t soon forget. After a break, Alexander returned to what he usually does, jazz improvisation — although it was fascinating to hear the way his study of Stravinsky’s score has influenced the technique and thought of his jazz playing. I am not as much of an expert on jazz as I am on Stravinsky, so all I can safely say about Alexander’s jazz is that he obviously knows , what he’s doing and executes his ideas with the same facility and power as he does with Stravinsky. For He certainly held my attention. And when he was working with material I recognized, l Loves You Porgy from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, I was best able to recognize the ingenuity of his improvising. It’s a pity that a performance like this drew so few people. But I have a suspicion that those of us who heard it are going to be telling our friends.
Watch for Neil Alexander’s name in the papers. And if you love great piano playing, go to hear him — and tell him not to be so modest!
A very good review indeed; however, my “lack of audience” problem has persisted – to this day, no matter what type of show – and so I ceased performing “Sacre”.
ZOOM FORWARD to 2011. Jon Riedel has come back to Purchase to get his Masters Degree. His company is doing well….and he has an idea for new Choreography, based on Ingmar Bergman’s “The Virgin Spring”. Dark stuff, but ultimately well suited to the overall mood.
So – after not performing it for 7 years, I brought “Le Sacre” back. I made a few improvements to voiceings and such, and we premiered his chorepography, with live music, 2 nights last May. It was a smashing success! I have some video footage which I will post as soon as I get a chance. We are also talking about working it into his upcoming (2012) season.
And – we are also approaching the 100 anniversary of the Rite Of Spring, and I have my own plans: an International tour of small concert venues & house concerts, ending in Paris in May 2013 where the piece premiered 100 years before. I have to tell you, I’m very excited by the whole prospect. Plans are being drawn up as I type. Of course this syncs up very nicely with my return to purely acoustic performance, and the (soon the be released) Solo Piano CD.
..And there it is! We’ll be keeping you posted, you can be sure. Thanks for reading. 🙂
Greetings, all comers! Welcome to another installment of the NAILblog…
About 13 months ago, I had started to write my 2009 Year-End wrap up post, about all that had happened in, well, 2009. There was quite a lot that happened; and in fact, kept happening – to the extent of which I never actually finished writing it. In fact, a whole other YEAR went by, and all the time I was thinking I could still get to it…. Not. Ridiculous, actually. So as 2010 came to close, I grappled (however briefly) with the idea of a 2010 Year End Wrap Up post again, and realized my mistake: its actually much more important for me at this point in my life to look FORWARD, instead of back. So I therefore change tack and offer more of a “what I hope to Accomplish in 2011” type of post. There’s a whole pile of projects and ideas I want to try and get to this year, and posting them here might (I am hoping) help me actually GET to them. Here goes:
What I’m planning for 2011: The Adventure continues
1) The Solo Piano CD & Performances
Folks have been after me to record a solo piano CD for something like 20 years. I know I’m off to a good start this year because Ive already recorded it. Editing/mixing now. The plan is to release it late spring, combined with a series of shows.
Coincidentally, I’ve been asked by choreographer Jonathan Riedel to perform my solo piano transcription of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring for 2 shows in May. It dovetails perfectly with the release of the CD, and “The Rite of Spring” will be featured in many of these performances. I am psyched!
2) The Planets Project
Gustav Holst’s amazing orchestral work, arranged for Jazz Octet. This will be one of my Kickstarter projects this year; in fact, Ive already got backers. Inspired by Duke Ellingtons arrangements of the Nutcracker, Mary Poppins, etc. A lot of the conceptual groundwork has already been put in place over the last 18 months. This year it HAPPENS. 🙂
This is an idea that ive been kicking around for a lot of years at this point. Not necessarily new or original, but I feel very strongly about it nevertheless. ASCO stands for the Analog Synthesizer Chamber Orchestra. I imagine it as a kind of a live version of Switched on Bach, a work that had a tremendous influence on me. My goal here is to bring ASCO into existence as a viable Chamber ensemble; stay with it for a number of years and then let someone else take the reigns. The main reason I have not acted on this idea is because it includes the creation of a not for profit organization. (Not to mention the initial equipment costs!). This year I will begin the process of creating this ensemble.
4) Duets (various)
Theres a handful of wonderful musicians Ive been talking with over the last few years, about doing various types of projects. Classical, improvisation, recording, performance, remix. Lots of amazing ideas and energy. Some of these folks are:
Who loves ya, kiddo?
Pianist and author Stuart Isacoff
Drummer Greg Burrows
Bassist Steve Lawson
Multi instrumentalist Alan Wentz
Violinist Zach Brock
Bassist Trip Wamsley
Guitarist Rob Michaels
Wind player Premik Russel Tubbs
Drummer vibraphonist Gregg Bendian
..and quite a few more I’ve not listed at the moment. Also on this list is my lovely wifeNita Rae, a songwriter & keyboard player. We’ve done things together now & again; she’s acted as coproducer and/or engineer on almost all of my recordings. My collaboration with her is way overdue, and will take top priority when it begins to take shape.
5) NAIL reborn, or reinvented, or just renamed…
I’m not sure why NAIL never really caught on after 11 years of playing out. Didn’t get far enough away from home? Too many personnel changes? Just not the right combination of tunes and musicians? Or a promo FAIL? Ah well. Whatever the reason, I had really good response to my last Winter Solstice show which was more of a piano based quartet (still using synthesizers, tho). Ive been chewing on a lot of ideas about what to do next with NAIL, and I think Ive decided on a more flexible approach – i.e., not sticking to any particular ensemble size or instrumentation, but still featuring the piano. Im starting to get excited about this, but the idea needs to cook some more. Ill be hoping to take this version for a spin in the fall, or maybe sooner. This means that the Planets Project would also fall under the guise of NAIL. That works for me. 🙂
Who is "the Mysterious Phantom"?
6) The Mysterious Phantom
I did this solo show at the Annual Zombie Barbecue hosted by my friend Dan at the Wherehouse restaurant in Newburgh. It was a sort of hardcore avant techno thing; I dressed in a cape, used a Theremin and was billed as The Phantom. There were suddenly a lot of requests for a Phantom CD. Sometimes you just gotta give the people what they want. Ill be doing that gig again this year, and I will have product in hand this time.
7) Choice NAIL: Live & Unreleased trax
Gee, Ive got a lot of these lying about. Enough for 2 CD’s, actually. It won’t take quite that much work to get these out; most of them just need to be mixed. Here’s a taste: “Box 555”:
8) UK House Concert & Lecture tour
If I can get this together, it will be amazing – especially to meet in person all the awesome Brits I’ve met thru Twitter. Its all about earning enough cash to cover the cost of the trip. More on this story as it develops.
9) NAILMUSIC.COM Website Overhaul
Wrangling Nailmusic.com into shape, with a more comprehensive non-flash site, optimized mobile site, and full integration with Soundcloud, Bandcamp and all my blogs – WordPress (this one), Posterous and my new Tumblr Synth blog. I’m gonna need some serious help with this one, and it needs to happen soon. Any web ninjas out there up for the challenge?
10) Solo Performances: Raves, Galleries, Concert Halls & House Concerts
Right alongside the acoustic piano concerts will be the electronic ones. In fact, I’m working a set of music for Piano/Laptop that has the best of both worlds. There will also be electronic only gigs, like Raves – I did 2 last year, major fun. The idea is to get out there and PLAY.
….And the question now is: only 10?
In reality, the idea factory has been working overtime over the last few years. Ive got literally an amazing amount of idea energy. The problem has always been the actual way forward: how to proceed, and on which ideas. I still don’t have the answers, but Ill learn as I go. Like the song says: ” you cant always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, you just might find… You get what you need.”
I say: BRING IT.
As always, I welcome your comments. Thanks for reading!