Saturday, August 21, 2010

Patrick de Monteton

Meet Patrick. He’s the owner of Chateau de Monteton. He wants you to come and visit him!

When Patrick sees me, he smiles and hugs me and tells me all kinds of things in French. I tell him sadly that I don’t understand, so he simply says, “Tres Bien.”

He was very proud of the fact that Monteton inspired so much music from me. When he saw my songbook, he stopped speaking French and just motioned that he wanted his picture taken with it.

Patrick makes a mean paella on Friday nights, just before our big concert. You simply must try it!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Monteton – Not Quite Utopia. . .Or Is It?

There were so many stories to tell when I arrived home. Stories about the people I love, and stories about the not so perfect moments in Monteton. My friends were wondering why I yearn to go to this place, where I don’t get enough sleep, where I make a lot of mistakes on stage, where travel to and from can be quite stressful, and where the unexpected can happen more often than the expected?

To me, a real good story, or a read good movie or play, shows the depth of the characters through both their goodness and their dark sides. When I write music, I try to access both of these qualities from myself or the world around me to make a musical story that has real emotion and depth.

Living with a group of people, some of whom I’ve known now for three summers, you begin to see the fullness of their character. You hear them groan and complain. You get to know their quirks and habits. You also see their generosity in bigger ways than you might have known before.

Several of us were very tired on Friday afternoon of our final day there. We had rehearsed at least 10 numbers throughout the day. We finally had a break, and really needed it to gear up for our big concert that night, which would start at 9 and last until at least 1:00 a.m. It was 4:15, and we were ready to run out the door and jump in the pool, on one of the few warm days we had that week. Lesley walked in and asked us to try one more piece. The chords weren’t all named yet, and it was a difficult tune. I worked on analyzing the chords, and Alan quietly stood behind me and wrote them down for his part. I was so impressed with everyone in that moment. After 30 minutes, though, Guy piped up, saying he needed a break. You’ve never seen two people find their swimsuits faster than we did.

When I am in Monteton, I feel like I am in a fairy tale. I am Thumbelina, and the sparrow has flown me in to find people just like me. (Except that we are full grown, not the size of a thumb.) Now, you all know what happens in fairy tales, right? Everything doesn’t go perfectly, but there is a happy ending, and the characters grow and learn from their experiences. I am with people like me, who love to learn, who love music, who don’t mind the pain one has to endure in order for growth to occur. Who love and accept each other, foibles and all.

Speaking of fairy tales, during the first week I was asked to join a group on stage who were jamming on the tune “Someday My Prince Will Come.” I tried to say yes every time I was asked, because that’s the best way to learn. I didn’t realize that several others had said no, because the chord changes in the piece are very difficult. I thought that since I know the melody and can easily sing it, it couldn’t be too hard. It was too hard. I played so many wrong notes, that I finally had to give up, and just sit on stage and listen, so that I wouldn’t ruin it for everyone else. The second week, someone asked me to play it again. Guess what I said? If you guessed no, you don’t win the point. (Remember, earlier in the paragraph, I said that I try to say yes every time I’m asked?) Amazingly, the second time was far better that the first. Somehow, I knew all the changes, and felt comfortable with the piece. I love happy endings!!

Leaving Monteton is never a happy ending, though. Can’t we have a little more time in this place, this Utopia, where you are served three wonderful meals a day that you don’t have to cook, and you get to enjoy long conversations at mealtime with people from all over the world who are just like you? Can’t we practice those tunes just a few more times, and improve our performances? Can’t I have just a few more walks around Monteton, so that I will never forget the expansive and breathtaking views of the countryside?

Until next time. . .

Composers Group at the 2010 Dordogne Jazz Summer School

Stuart and Billy on trumpet, Vincent on sax, Dieuwke on flute, Dorian on bass, Tony on baritone sax, the other Tony on drums and myself on the keys. I started the group out with a strange assignment that has actually worked in my favor many times over the years. I asked each person to write down a letter from the music alphabet on a piece of paper, for us to use to create a musical theme. The series of tones had an odd sound at first. Each person played it separately on their instrument, and we likened it to something you would hear in a Hitchcock film – very dark and noir-ish. We tried the idea using different rhythms, and also experimented by rotating the notes around in a different order. After 10 minutes or so, we were starting to accept and even enjoy the sound. We then tried putting chords underneath the notes, and were shocked that suddenly, something that seemed so strange at first, now sounded quite beautiful.

I like this exercise, because sometimes, as a composer, it can be so difficult to start writing a piece. What notes do I choose? What if I don’t pick the right ones? What if I do all this work, and it doesn’t become a hit? By selecting something random, we can get going on the actual work (or you could call it play) – experimenting and toying and considering and choosing. And we can almost do it fearlessly, because we haven’t yet put our idea on a pedestal, making us afraid to mess with it or mess it up.

We had a temporary snafu in our schedule after losing our original bass player, so we began rehearsing one of my tunes titled, “Something For You.” (This is one that I feel comfortable playing the bassline on piano.) Someone in the group, I think it was Stuart, suggested that the B section of the head would sound nice as a flute solo. I thought that was great, so we tried it, and then decided that it would sound cool in that spot if the horns played harmonies underneath the flute. So we spent time arranging the notes of the chords for the two trumpets and two saxes. Everyone seemed pleased with the end result, and happy to have been part of the process.

Another exercise we did later in the week was to listen to our original notes-out-of-a-hat and the chords we had put under them, and imagine what the next rhythmic idea could be. Everyone sat quietly, jotting down their thoughts, and then each person played back what could be the “answer.” Each idea was different, yet they each sounded valid. Rather than asking the students to pick the next notes, I just asked for rhythm. With only one thing to choose, the notes actually flowed very easily from them.

We performed four of my tunes for the Friday concert – Monteton Blues (up tempo), No Brainer (a slow blues), Something For You (a happy little tune) and Lemonade (a very quick blues). The day before the concert, I was looking around the stage for something percussive that we could use in our performance. Something unexpected, and hopefully, something from the back of the room, rather than from the stage. I noticed the pots and pans hanging from the ceiling, and was imagining the owner, Patrick, banging on them to start our piece. Then I remembered the bell. Every evening, someone rings a bell when they are about to close the bar. And this same bell is used to announce lunch and dinnertime. I asked Dorian about it, and he said to ask Josh, one of the young guys who works in the kitchen. Josh was excited about the idea of incorporating the bell into the piece. But he wasn’t sure where the bell was. I spotted Manu, the owner’s son, who is a fabulous drummer and just happened to be home for a couple of days between gigs. He said he would get the bell to Josh, so everything was worked out. Except for the fact that we couldn’t really rehearse the opening, it just had to come together in the moment.

I had mentioned in one of our group sessions the importance of quiet, dreamy time for creativity. I also suggested that when there is a deadline, our creativity can kick into high gear. I noticed that my brain was not able to shut off until the moment we performed on Friday night. All week, I kept thinking, what else could we add to the music and our performance of it?

Our group was the first to perform on Friday evening, so it seemed fitting to start with Monteton Blues. The players were lined up and ready to go. Rather than count them off, I pointed to Josh at the back of the room, and he wildly started shaking the bell. Then it was, “A-one, a-two, a-one, two, three, four” and off we went. Great fun, and everyone did a great job!

Big Dave

I only call him Big Dave because he calls himself Big Dave (and to distinguish him from the other Dave.) I don’t know if it is because he is Irish or what, but he is the funniest storyteller I know. If there was an empty spot beside him at the table, I often tried to fill it, just to enjoy more laughs and firm up my stomach muscles. At 6 feet, 8 or so inches, his stature meets his personality, and his nickname sums it up.

For Dave, I wrote a jazz arrangement of Danny Boy, which he requested. We had the opportunity to perform it together during the first week, and received lots of “awwwws” from the audience.

I want to tell the story that he told, but I don’t know if it will work coming from me. You really need to hear him tell it. So I’ll just give an outline. He said that he was staying at a bed and breakfast (I’m thinking it was owned by a family friend) and that he was promised the room with the big bed. When he left the room to find the bathroom, he came back and saw that someone else was in his bed. (He had actually walked into the wrong room.) Rather than double check, he grabbed the person by the feet and started shaking them and telling them to get out of his bed. The woman that he grabbed sat up, took off her eyemask, and started screaming that a “monster” was in her room. Dave realized his mistake and left the room. The woman ran out of the hotel in the middle of the night without paying.

If that woman only knew how wrong she was about Dave. He is a sensitive and soft-hearted guy, in a big and tall man’s body.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Guillaume and Piero

Ok, these guys were not on the jazz course. They are a couple of young men that I met in Paris last Sunday. On rue Mouffetard, at the restaurant where Ernest Hemingway used to live, I sat outside to eat dinner on a warm night. Two college-age guys were then seated at the table beside me I thought they were speaking French, and then it sounded like Spanish, so I was a bit confused and decided to ask them if they were French or Spanish. Guillaume was French and Piero was Italian. But Piero doesn’t speak French, so they converse in Spanish to each other (they met during their semester in Barcelona.) When Guillaume said “I’m French,” he said it so “English-ly” that I commented on his good English. Pretty soon we were all talking in English (thankfully) about important things like food and cheese and music and history. The hours flew by, and when Piero said it was midnight, my jaw dropped. During the conversation, they offered to join me at the jazz club I was planning to attend, but by the time we arrived, the jam session was over.

Lovely, lovely new friends, wise beyond their years. I loved how intensely each of them talked about their passions (especially food.) Guillaume gets angry when people don’t bond with their food like the French and the Italians do. Piero talked in detail about making homemade pasta, and about his village where, if you are a visitor, your plate is never empty. They both listened intently when I talked and responded to every thought I had.

They walked me to my hotel after missing out on the concert. As we were crossing the Seine, we stopped for a photo opportunity. The sky was dark, but the lights across the water made it look like ice and it was so beautiful. Both guys were majoring in European languages, and I wished I could have stayed and learned a few more phrases from them!

Egg, Chips (and Beans)

I’m forever grateful when friends, whether they know it or not, say something that sets off a desire in me to “write a song about it.” That’s what happened when John Paul Yardley sent me an email with the subject, “Egg, Chips (and Beans).” John was in my composers group at DJSS last year, along with Andy (who John actually addressed the email to.) In our group, we talked about our favorite foods, and as we talked, we listened to the rhythms we used when talking about something we love (which led us to some interesting improvisations.) Andy, from UK, but now living in France, said he missed having egg and chips for breakfast. So John sent an email (copied to me) with photos of Andy’s favorite food, prepared in John’s very own kitchen. I was so touched. I just had to write a song about it. My idea was to hide an “egg” in the tune. In my initial sketch, I started a tune with E-G-G, but that wasn’t working. So I kept playing with it and shifting and erasing and starting over. When I finally found something satisfying and excitedly created the chart, I realized the “egg” was missing. But it was too late, I really liked the tune. Then, when transposing to B flat for John’s sax, I found it, the missing egg!

John was here for the first week this year, and I hoped that he would want to perform Egg, Chips (and Beans) with me. We kept putting it off, and then decided to write it on the play list for Thursday night. So off to the practice room we went. He was not happy about the unexpected chord progression I wrote in bar 10. He was not happy about the extra flats in his part. I was afraid he might give up on the piece. We went through some sections, and then he asked me to leave so he could work on it alone.

About fifteen minutes later, he was ready. Joining us was Quentin on trumpet, Lesley on sax, Dorian on bass, Jack (John’s son) on drums and Leo on ukulele. We went on stage and Quentin counted us off. We played fast and furiously. It was fantastic. Everyone rose to the occasion. The crowded roared with delight. Later I realized I hadn’t set up my recorder. But my memory of the moment will stay with me.

John wasn’t able to stay for the second week, but that’s when Andy came (the one who John had sent the email to.) A group of us played the piece again at the final Friday night concert. This time it was Ollie and Lesley on sax, Guy on drums, Alan on bass, and Mike on guitar. Again, everyone played great, another wonderful moment. Andy was thrilled. (And I have it on tape!)


Sweet is not the word for Stuart. Sour is not the word for Stuart. Lesley (one of my roommates) called him rogue-ish – I think that will work for now. Abundantly generous could be another phrase. He is always bringing something new to the table – literally. A jar of preserves and a bag of fresh croissants and bread for breakfast, a jar of olives at lunch, and for dinner, the incongruent bottles of champagne and ketchup. Stuart, from Wales, often says the wrong thing at the wrong time, but I am able to forgive him because of the kind “right” things he has said to me over the years.

He took me aside last year, after the first meeting of my Composers Group. Just when I thought he was going to say I was the worst teacher in the world, he said that he understood what I was trying to accomplish, and he was 100% behind me. He proved this by taking on the role of sergeant-of-arms during the rest of the week. He’s not afraid to say anything, and sometimes, what he says is actually quite kind. A great trumpet player, I was happy to have him back in my Composers Group again this year. I will remember him having a bit too much to drink and standing and singing around the campfire to a rapt audience of French singers that we shared the chateau with during week 2.

Alan and Suzanne

Hee Hee Hee says Alan, every time he wins a point in ping pong. With his lilting Scottish accent, it’s easy to forgive him for his mean streak. Alan was in my large ensemble during week 2, and also played bass with me on many of the performances of my tunes during that week. My favorite moment with him was hearing the “Scottish scat” that can forth from his lips during a group session where we were asked to sing an improvisation.

Alan is with Suzanne, who plays flute and sax, and smiles and laughs all the time (except when she is concentrating on ping pong.) She is the most ruthless competitor – I can’t even come close to beating her. We had a nice moment talking about our children and our work (which rarely happens in Monteton – usually the conversations are about music, music, music or silly thing.) Suzanne was also in my large group and played my down and dirty “B-3 Blues” with me.

The Tutors

Quentin Collins – Fabulous trumpet player. He’s a great teacher, and gave me some tools that I really think I can apply this year to my practicing. He also played with me on my “Egg, Chips (and Beans)” and I’m still kicking myself that I didn’t get it on tape, because his solo was off the charts!

Jonathan Bratoeff – Very sensitive French guitarist. One of my favorite moments was a rehearsal with Jonathan. We were going over a couple of my tunes that we decided to play as duets for my Monday seminar. I was worried that I couldn’t pull it off without a bass player and drummer, but Jonathan assured me that everything would be fine. These I did record and his sensitivity and sensibility are amazing. The patterns that he comes up with are so distinctively him, and when you watch him play, you know you are watching the real deal. He is always completely involved in his performance.

Dorian Lockett – Brilliant bass player and always jolly director of DJSS, along with his wife, Andrea Vicari. We were thrilled to have Dorian join my Composers Group on week one. He really helped us “find our groove” for our Friday night performance.

Andrea Vicari – Andrea makes playing jazz piano look so easy. She led the piano classes for week one, and also led my large ensemble for part of week two. Andrea’s assignment to us was to write down every note and rhythm of a sax solo from a 1940’s recording. She used a program called Transcribe, which made it possible to slow down the notes without distorting the tones. I had heard that transcribing solos was an important part of daily jazz practice, but I never could stick with it. Doing it as a group, a little at a time, made what seemed like an impossible task, possible.

Mornington Lockett – I had the opportunity to work with this highly regarded sax player one day last year. This year, he was around for the full second week, dividing his time between the two large ensembles. His patience and attention to detail astounds me. On one particular tune, I was having trouble figuring out good piano voicings for the chord progression. So Mornington played some examples at the piano and said “Do you have it?” I was embarrassed to say no, I don’t. Watching someone’s fingers when they are moving too fast and trying to memorize their movements was a little over my head. Rather than give up on me, Mornington said “Sit down beside me and write down what I am doing.” That I could do! Mornington joined a group of us on my “B-3 Blues” and brought the house down with his stunning solo!

And thanks to Mark Lockheart, Nic France and Dave Gelly, who joined me on “Monteton Blues” and “Is This the Real Thing?” It was great working with all of the fine tutors!


My purpose in traveling to the Dordogne Jazz School for the first time in July of 2008 was twofold – to learn to play jazz and to learn to write a jazz chart. I also hoped to make friends, but with my mission guiding me, I found myself avoiding the social life at night and instead going to a practice room alone to toy with chords and scales and voicings. Somehow, by the end of the week, I had bonded with people (thanks to the lengthy communal meals and rehearsal times.) Using the word bonded is putting it lightly. I had fallen head over heels in love with the 65 or so people enrolled in the course, from John, an 18-year-old from England who sat with me at the piano and helped me with my thirds and sevenths, to Reggie, a drummer who I believe was 82 that year. And I had fallen in love with the village itself, Monteton, and the surrounding countryside. By the end of the week, I realized that the person I was going to miss the most was a fellow named Guy, who was the drummer in my performance group. We seemed to always gravitate to the same table at meals, so we got to know each other gradually throughout the week. Plus, he was so wonderful to work with at the rehearsals. I managed to finish the piece I was trying to write that week (titled "Midnight at Monteton," subtitled "It's Silly, Really, But It's Love") and Guy was one of the musicians who performed it with me. He did a valiant job of staying in touch through emails, listening and commenting on each new piece I wrote (almost immediately after they were written) and we were able to perform together both in 2009 and this year.

Mornington, one of the tutors, describes Guy at the “quintessential Englishman,” which he is. Such a kind and thoughtful gentleman, he always saved me a spot at dinner, and always offered me a drink after our nightly performances. What catches me off guard is his offbeat humor. I laugh every time I think of the off the wall things that he comes up with. I also can’t help but like the fact that he loves my music and was willing to play drums with me on as many performances of my tunes as possible. I don’t have to say a word, he instinctively knows what style of hitting those drums I am looking for, even when I don’t know myself. We are such good buddies, it just didn’t seem right to have to say good-bye to him when the week was over. Especially since we ran out of chances for me to demolish him in ping-pong.


A French guitar player from Paris who I’ve known each of the summers I have been to DJSS, Claude melted my heart the first year with his touching performance of No More Blues. His playing is always heartfelt, and when he’s not on stage, he likes to tell little jokes and giggle. I found out this year that he is a great swing dancer, too. In the middle of the first week, the music revved up during the evening, so the chateau staff took the hint and removed the tables so we could have a dance floor. Claude grabbed me and started doing his moves – twirling me and spinning me and quietly teaching me that all I have to do is follow and everything will work. Breathe, let go and let him spin me again. This time, I was the one smiling and giggling. Claude and I enjoy playing together – we were in the same large group during week one, and he also played some of my tunes with me. When we were saying good-bye, he told me how much he likes the sensitivity of my playing and my compositions. A nice thing to hear from a sweet, sensitive person!


Another very sweet person, one of the sweetest I know, with a delightful twinkle in his eye, is David, a British guy who is now living in Russia. Behind the twinkle and the sweetness is one amazing brain. David loves to stay busy with a vast variety of creative projects. Music, woodworking, game design, computer programming are just a few of his passions. He has songs to write and performances to produce and instruments to repair and games he is in the process of creating. He talks fast and is never, ever not smiling (except perhaps when there is a contrabass clarinet in his mouth.) David is also the instigator of the funny moments on stage at DJSS, such as the free jazz performance featuring someone blowing across beer bottles and making strange sounds with a ukulele. David was in my week 2 ensemble and also played a couple of my tunes with me – a jazz version of Danny Boy, which was written for an Irishman named David, and Deux Chapeaux, which I wrote for him. When I asked David to play, his answer was “definitely yes,” which always makes me happy. In fact, David always makes me happy!


Soft-spoken and tender, Irene, from Austria, with the cool blue eyes, dark hair and red lipstick, is all about the music. We were in the same large group the first week, and we also performed some of my tunes together during both weeks. Irene also likes to win in ping pong (as do I) so it was nice to discover other friends who enjoyed being competitive but could still have fun with it. Irene kindly offered to let me do my laundry at her place, since there was a long line of people waiting for the machine at mine. When I found out about my grandma's death, Irene was quick to leave the dinner table just as the food was being served to spend time with me so I wouldn’t have to go through it alone. She was happy when I asked her to play three of my tunes with me – Midnight at Monteton, If You Only Knew and Lullaby. She really loves rehearsing, loved the music and plays with such heart. When it was time to say good-bye, she gave me a big hug and sweetly said “I like you!” I like her, too!

Portraits of Monteton Players

My travels home were such a nightmare, that I spent most of my nine-hour flight to the U.S. from Paris writing about the good things I experienced, so I could remind myself it was all worth it. David, one of the guys on the course, took some very artistic photos of each person as they were performing, which inspired me to tell my stories through "portraits" of some of the students. Writing them helped me remember why I love Monteton and all the people there so much. I'm not going to let all the late planes and trains ruin my memories!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

If You Only Knew

Right after I left Monteton, France, in August of 2009, I wrote a tune called “If You Only Knew.” The opening 5 notes have so much wistfulness and emotion in them that they can bring a tear to your eye, whether you know the back story or not. While writing the piece, I was struggling with the distant between myself and my friends from DJSS, and struggling with the knowledge that Taylor, my then 18-year-old son, would be going far away to college in just a few days. I had the opportunity to play the piece in Monteton a couple of times during the past two weeks – once with Jonathan Bratoeff, the passionate French guitarist and tutor who I admire so much, and once in a jazz ensemble featuring Irene on sax. I didn’t know if I was going to be able to get through the ensemble performance, because another loss had come into play – I had just received the news that my 90-year-old grandmother had passed away.

I was able to be with Grandma on her birthday in June, and was thankful that her oldest daughter, my aunt Phyllis, suggested that I write a song for her. She was hoping it would lean more toward classical than jazz, but currently, everything I write leans toward jazz. I ended up writing two songs, an upbeat, happy tune called “Something For You,” and a sweet and simple “Lullaby” (with some dissonances in just the right places.)

On the first Friday night of DJSS, I performed “Something For You” with my Composers Group. During our rehearsals, I shared with the group the story behind the piece. Often I write the music, and then try to write lyrics that match the rhythm. The lyrics are usually strange and goofy, but they help me know if the piece will work or not. My thought was that my grandma loved pie so much, that when she saw a piece of fruit, she saw the fruit’s potential, as in, the fact that it would and should become a pie. So the lyrics that evolved were something like this:

Verse 1
One and one and one is three
Apples on the Pie Apple Tree
I hope you’ll pick some for me today.

Verse 2 (still working on it.)

All I can see is an apple
All I can see is a Pie Apple
Up on the highest tree.

(Repeat Verse 1)

Two days later, I found out that grandma passed away that same evening of the “Something For You” performance. (In fact, right after the performance.) The following Wednesday, the day of her funeral, Irene and I played Lullaby again (Jonathan and I had played it previously.) It felt good to have everyone there thinking of my grandmother. If she only knew.

Excuses, Good Excuses

The French keyboards with the letters in the wrong places, the line of people waiting to use the computer, and the people screaming inside the computer shack due to the wasps. . .

But I did write many stories on the plane and will be editing and posting these in the next week or so. Thanks for checking back!