Monday, August 22, 2011

Reality Check

When you are in Monteton, it feels so real.  It’s not a dream.  It’s real, and nothing else is.  At least that is what Mornington said at around 5:00 in the morning, which was still evening to all of us after the concert on Friday night. 

Magic is another word that is often used when describing this place.  A few of us were at the breakfast table across from a man that was new to us.  I had noticed him taking photographs at the concert the night before, and assumed he was doing a story for the newspaper.  But he said he was an artist, staying in Monteton for a time just to paint.  He didn’t speak much English, but he did say, “Monteton. . .magic.”

A good friend of mine has heard me pine and whine, year after year, about going back to Monteton.  When I returned this time around, she sat me down (over the phone) and said something to the tune of – I don’t want to hear you saying if or whether.  You need to just say you are going back, and plan on it and believe it. 

So . . . it looks like I’ll be going back to reality the same time next year.


Le Piano Vache

My last day in Paris, I had a big treat awaiting me: dinner with a real Parisian in a real Parisian restaurant, followed by a gypsy jazz guitar concert! Claude, a guitarist and fellow Monteton student, escorted me a few blocks away from where I was staying to a tiny place that tourists don’t know about (except for that couple from Cleveland sitting beside us.) I loved the vibe there – so much character, so many layers of posters and pictures and writing on the walls. To get to the toilettes, you go through the bar (2 steps away from your seat) and up very steep steps, to a very ancient looking second floor. (It’s strange to me that I find the smell of old buildings in France somewhat pleasant. The mix of stone and wood and who knows what else.) While we were waiting for the food, in walked the gypsy guitarist that we were about to hear in concert. He sat by Claude and they exchanged a few words. Claude introduced me as a pianist/composer from the states, and Rodolphe shook my hand and spoke to me briefly in English.
After a lovely dinner, we strolled over to Le Piano Vache. (The logo is kind of a stick figure cow with a body made of piano keys.) We entered into a dark, small but lively place, to the back room. There is a bar, an old upright piano, rustic small tables and chairs, and a few musicians setting up. A trio (2 guitars and a bass.) The room is also full of character, with layers of posters and writing on the walls. We sat about 5 feet away from the musicians. The music started and Rodolphe was a beast. So strong and confident, playing jazzy riffs and also some showy, gypsy-style riffs. So enjoyable, amazing, fantastic, brilliant.

Oh, but I haven’t mentioned my favorite part. Each time Rodolphe would start a new tune, the guys behind the bar would SHUSH everyone LOUDLY. Wow. It was all about the music. The locals were so excited to be in the audience, they scooted their chairs as close to the musicians as they could, and they listened!

Time to Go

I now know how to flush every type of toilette in France.  You’ve got your lever on the floor that you step on.  Your pull chain hanging from the ceiling.  Your metal pull sticking up from the top of a little hole on the tank (I’m guessing that that one was make-shift.)  The sub-divided, flat rectangle on top of the tank that you push in.  The same rectangular piece, but mounted on the wall.  And the quarter-sized circle on top of the tank that you push in.

Do What Comes To Mind

I’m at the Tuileries Gardens near the Louvre, trying to get a good picture of the formal, perfectly coiffed bushes. Standing on a bench is not going to elevate me enough to see the patterns that I would be able to see from the sky. I look around and notice the ferris wheel at the little amusement park just behind me.  Immediately, I tell myself it’s a stupid idea.  I can’t ride a ferris wheel!  Then I’m reminded of my words – “write what comes to mind.”  I decide to substitute “do” for “write” and let my feet lead me to the Wheel of Paris.

My negative voice tries again.  “It costs money?  I’m not paying that!”  The pal on my other shoulder counters with, “Well, how else are you going to get that view?”

I step firmly to the ticket line, and enjoy a fabulous view of the entire city – the Seine, all of the Eiffel Tower, Sacre Couer, the Louvre, some skyscrapers to the west that I didn’t know existed, and of course, the Tuileries.

Au Piano Muet

Friday night/Saturday morning in Monteton sort of blurs together.  The concert ended at about 2 a.m.  Then it was time to say good-bye. Which for me lasted 3½ more hours.  A couple of hours of sleep, quick packing, and a quick breakfast later, I’m back on a train to Paris.  I arrive early evening, and notice a favorite restaurant that I happened upon last year, just steps away from my hotel.  My plan was to go straight to bed and catch up on sleep. . .but I couldn’t stop thinking about the amazing salad from Au Piano Muet. . . In a trance, I found myself seated there, asking for Savoyard salad, with the to-die-for bacon (“red ham”) cubes of emmental cheese, local tomatoes and the perfectly simple dressing.  After filling every inch of my stomach, I went straight to bed for a well-deserved 12 hours of sleep.  (To make up for the 24 hours of sleep I had had during the entire week in Monteton.) 

Sunday, August 14, 2011

World Premieres!

Seven world premieres in seven days, eight performances total (two of “Once is Not Enough!”)  I’m so thankful for all the wonderful friends who performed my music with me in Monteton:

My Knee Mo’ – David Marlton-clarinet, Tanguy Pellen-sax, Dave Besnard-guitar, Dorian Lockett-bass, Guy Clapham-drums

Once Is Not Enough – Quentin Collins-trumpet, Ian Bumstead-sax, Jonathan Bratoeff-guitar, Ferg Ireland-bass, Guy Clapham-drums

Can’t Let It Go – Quentin Collins-trumpet, Ian Bumstead-sax, Jonathan Bratoeff-guitar, Ferg Ireland-bass, Guy Clapham-drums

Spring Swing – Ian Bumstead-sax, Dave Besnard-guitar, Ferg Ireland-bass, Guy Clapham-drums

And Then There Were Two – Quentin Collins-trumpet, Ian Bumstead-sax, Claude Broclain-guitar, Ferg Ireland-bass, Guy Clapham-drums

I Digress – Steve Pringle-piano, Ian Bumstead-sax, Jonathan Bratoeff-guitar, Ferg Ireland-bass, Nic France-drums

Bullet Proof Blues – Quentin Collins-trumpet, Mark Lockheart-sax, Jonathan Bratoeff-guitar, Ian Bumstead-sax, Alex Moore-bass, Manu Feramus-drums

(We played Spring Swing on Tuesday night, July 26, and unfortunately, I ran to the stage without getting someone to push the record button for me.  If anyone happened to catch this on video or audio, please let me know!!)

Audio files are available at

Once is Not Enough video (thanks to Tanguy Pellen!):

I Digress

When people ask me about my favorite moment in Monteton, it is very difficult to choose.  There are so many that I have jotted down.  I’ll just start talking about one of them, and we’ll see where it goes. 

I asked Steve, one of the piano tutors, if he would consider performing one of my tunes.  “I Digress,” was so difficult in every way, between the complex chords and the off-kilter form and the rhythm, that I had trouble playing it once the head was over and it was time for comping and soloing.  I really enjoy his playing and wanted to hear his take on it.  He said yes, and helped me gather up some of the other tutors (Ian, Jonathan, Ferg and Nic) to run through it on stage.

I was in the front row, on the edge of my seat.  The performance was nothing short of electric, amazing, astounding. Maybe because of the difficulty, each musician was fully engaged in the moment.  If there had been a video camera on me, you would have seen big bright eyes and a huge smile throughout.  I probably made the loudest “woo-hoos!” when they finished.  The guys came off stage, and said “That was hard!”  But they also said that they loved it. 

Jonathan, the guitar teacher who I have great respect for, and who played most of my new tunes throughout the week, gave me some wonderful compliments that will keep me going for a long time.  “You are a great jazz composer.  Where are you coming up with these ideas?  This one is so modern!  Who are you listening to??”

I had been working on the piece for two years.  Twenty-two measures, and it took me that long to figure out?  The original idea pretty much came to me all at once, on an August day in 2009.  It was the naming of the chords, the understanding of the bass line I had in mind, and the confusion about how to perform it that kept me from showing it to anyone.

The moments after that performance were surreal.  It was like I had made the final touchdown and won the game, and was being hoisted up on the teams’ shoulders to a cheering crowd.  Except that it wasn’t really like that.  No one actually picked me up.  The next piece on the list was already in progress, and the audience had moved on to listen and cheer for the other players. It was just one of those times when you felt like it was all worth it.

Once Is Not Enough

Which is why I have made it a goal to return to Monteton, year after year (this being my 4th.)  “Once Is Not Enough” is also the title of a piece I wrote and dedicated to this 10th anniversary of the Dordogne Jazz Summer School.  Back in January, a warm, breezy, latin-style tune started emerging.  Looking at all of the scratch-outs, shifts and revisions on my manuscript paper, I know it didn’t come to me easily.  What I thought I “should” do, which was return to the opening phrase at the end of the head, did not work.  I kept at it until I realized that there was one more thing to say, a high point I needed to hit at measure 25, in order for the arc of the piece to be satisfying.

I had been thinking about it for months, and it finally made sense that a trumpet was the necessary lead instrument.  Quentin, Ian, Jonathan, Ferg, and Guy joined me to perform the piece during my Tuesday morning presentation.  We had to opportunity to play it again for the big Friday night concert, when the entire village comes to eat paella and listen to the music the various groups had been rehearsing throughout the week.

Once is not enough, because. . .

  • A once-in-a-lifetime experience should be repeated.
  • I’ve connected with people who have become some of my best friends.
  • The paella
  • I can’t get enough of the British, Irish, Scottish, French, Italian, Swiss (and more) sense of humor.
  • It’s a fabulous place to try out new music!
  • There is so much to learn in jazz, and the teachers are wicked good!
  • I need another view of the countryside to provide another year’s worth of inspiration!
  • I haven’t learned enough French yet.
Video from the Friday night performance:

Listen to audio of both performances at:

With Pleasure!

Toulouse is a very happy place.  It’s in the south, so it’s sunny and warm.  When you enter a service establishment and ask for help, your answer is “avec plaisir!” (“With pleasure!”)

At least that is what Cathy, my host, told me.  But I can’t help but believe her, because everyone I saw in Toulouse looked happy.  Even the buildings were happy, including the parking garage in town.  You step out of your car, and notice that classical music is being piped in.  The pleasant scent of perfume is wafting through the air.  The pavement is freshly painted with stripes of Toulouse’s signature color, a lilac-y/fuchsia-y color of pinkish purple.  Maybe there is a specific name for it?  (Wikipedia says Toulouse is called “The Pink City” because of its brick architecture.)

My nephew, Myles, hosted an exchange student from Toulouse a few months ago.  When Maxime found out that I would be coming to France, he invited me to his home.  I must say it was one of the most wonderful experiences I have ever had.  The quiet beauty of the countryside.  The happy faces of him, his mother, his grandmother, and all the relatives that showed up for dinner just because I was there.  The amazing, delicious 4-hour meal that was presented “with pleasure,” from the preparation, to the setting of the table, to the serving of each splendid course. The teasing and joking (mostly in French) between the very close parents, children, aunts, uncles, and cousins.  The 21-year old cousin who sat by me and did much translating, who kept saying things like, “Here in France, we enjoy the good things of life.  Great food and wine, and time at the table with people we love.”

After an enjoyable French breakfast, I gave a little house concert, playing some of my "classically" composed pieces and some of the jazz I was bringing to Monteton.  Maxime, in turn, played a lovely piano piece by a living French composer (I don't remember the name, but when I find out I will let you know.)  When the mother and grandmother dropped me off in Monteton (a 2-hour drive) I was torn.  I couldn’t wait to see my DJSS friends.  But I had to say good-bye to two amazing women who I had become attached to in a very short time.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Write What Comes to Mind

On the plane to France, I was thinking about what I would say as an introduction to my presentation in Monteton about my process of composing music.  I noticed that I was thinking, but actually not writing anything down.  I needed to find a way to get started.  Sometimes, honesty is the best policy.  So I began. . .

“My pen does not want to touch the paper until I’m ready to say something profound.  But can I really get to that yet?  I probably just need to write and let it out and process things and only then (if I’m lucky) will something profound emerge.”

I continued to unsuccessfully string words together, and then came up with. . .

“I could just sit and think and not ever write because the profound thing has not come to me yet.  Or I could write until it comes, or write something down now that will allow it to come later.  Maybe it’s in layers, like the muscles in my back.  Maybe I can only get to the top layer, something superficial, maybe just notes and rhythm, before I can get to the next level of depth.”

(This was something my physical therapist taught me—that she couldn’t get down to the root of my back problems until she could relax the muscles on the top layer, and the next layer, and the next. . .)

Then I started writing about the clouds in the sky looking like snow on a pond.  A few sentences later. . .

“When you just write what comes to mind, sometimes you delight yourself.  Like the time I wrote a story for Delaney, and at the last moment, decided to let the dog talk.  Having a dog talk isn’t ‘true’ or ‘honest,’ but it came to mind, so I jotted it down. And it made her laugh!  It seems a lot less pressure-filled to write what comes to mind.  I really like that.  But I didn’t think of it first, I had to write a lot of words in order to get to it.”

One of the pieces I presented at DJSS, called "Can’t Let It Go," starts with an almost annoyingly repetitive riff, followed by seven beats of rest.  It was an odd idea, and yet, it really grabbed me as something I could work with.  Rather than dismiss it as too weird, I kept toying and experimenting, to see where it would lead.  It was kind of itchy and under my skin for weeks until I solved it.  And now, it’s one of my favorites to play. 

Write what comes to mind now, and you may smile about it later!

Listen to the premiere of Can't Let It Go at:
or watch video at:

Training 101

Your ticket tells you the train number, the car number and the seat number.  What you can’t know until 15 minutes ahead of time is what platform you are on.  Everyone just sits with their cafĂ© and baguette watching the big screen, which has information about the trains that are present, and the trains coming up.  It’s boring, but you really can’t take your eyes off of it (especially if you are a tourist) or you might miss your train.  It has the ready-to-snooze factor of watching a pot boil, combined with the now-or-never anticipation of waiting for the gun to go off at your first Olympic race.

Mine was platform 4, to the north.  I quickly followed signs down to #4, and then looked at a short and wide screen that indicated where to stand to get into the correct car.  I stood in what I thought was the right place, but then a train went by and stopped maybe 100 yards down from where I was standing.  Hoards of people ran to that train.  I was confused.  It’s not time for my train, but maybe I need follow everyone else.

It never hurts to look confused.  A kind French woman saw me and said “deux trains!” She held out two fingers, indicating that another one was coming.  She asked to see my ticket, and confirmed I was in the right place.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Work It Until You Get It Right

One of my dear friends will soon be asking me what I learned during the week and a half that I was in France – what was the overall theme was of my experience.  I would have to say that this time around, the word “perseverance” kept coming to me, as a message, a reminder, as something I needed to work on and work out.  When the lock is jammed and you are stuck in a bathroom in a Paris restaurant, perseverance is your only option.  I’m alone, so I have no one to rescue me, or even know that I am in there.  I have to work it until I get it right.   

My first mission, after the plane landed in Paris, was to catch my train to Toulouse.  I succeeded, made it to the interim train station, changed trains and arrived just as planned.  My friends Cathy and Maxime were scheduled to meet me there.  We ran into a problem when my phone calls to Cathy didn’t go through.  And I was not able to retrieve her messages.  Perseverance was my only option.  I called my phone service provider and asked why things weren’t working correctly.  They informed that they had misinformed me previously on how to call or text while in France.  I fixed everything up, but still couldn’t get through.  Panic set in.  I don’t want to be left at the train station.  My friends might think I didn’t make it.  A thought occurred:  what did people do before cell phones existed??  Landlines!  I looked for an info desk for help.  A uniformed man said to go around the corner to door #20.  I did and saw a phone.  But no one came out when I called for help.  Finally another uniformed man came forward, but spoke no English.  I waited again, and another person dialed the code for making an outside call, then let me dial Cathy’s number.  But I received an error message! As I was thinking of my next move, I saw that Cathy tried to call me again on my cell, and this time, I was able to answer it.  Thankfully, she persevered, and we were able to find each other.

A few days later, I am at the Dordogne Jazz Summer School in Monteton.  One of my compositions is about to be played – a world premiere.  My camera card had just filled up, so I ran back to my room to get a new memory card.  I tried putting it in, but kept getting error messages.  Dorian, the school director, showed me the little plastic lever on the side of the card that can slide back and forth.  It must have been in a locked position, and when he moved it, the camera worked again.  I thanked him profusely and prepared to hand the camera to a friend to film the performance.  I double checked the camera, and received another “memory card locked!” error.  So I ran to my friend Dave, who is quite savvy about all things electronic (and about life in general.)  He slid the lever up, then down and then finally to the middle.  He said, “You have to work it until you get it right!”  For the rest of the week, I had to fiddle with that lever every time I tried to take a picture or make a video.  I didn’t always get it right, so lost a few opportunities, but kept at it by asking friends to make videos for me with their cameras.  Giving up was not an option.

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