Album Notes (in which Derel interviews himself)

Quantity Of Life: original songs for piano trio

to be released on October 18, 2019


Why release a piano trio album?

I have been playing in piano trios (with bass and drums) ever since I began playing jazz professionally back in about 1990, so I am very accustomed to that configuration. I particularly enjoy playing melodies, and not having horns or other dominant melody voices in the band gives me all the freedom and responsibility that comes with being the primary melody player. And of course, among the different types of jazz small groups, the piano trio has one of the richest recorded histories, so there is a more than ample range of approaches to draw from.

Why release an album now?

After about 20 years of marriage, fatherhood and law practice, in 2015 it became clear that a new phase of life was on the horizon ("Quantity Of Life," get it?). Instead of continuing to only play whatever informal trio gigs crossed my path, I decided to be deliberate about it: to form my own trio that would focus on my original music.

Cool, so about the album...

Right. By winter 2017, we had built up a decent book of my original songs and developed a rapport as a band, so we recorded what eventually became Quantity Of Life.

Winter 2017?!? It's October 2019! What took you so long?

Giving birth to my first musical child has been a very slow and educational experience.

Got it. Let's talk about the music.

As the saying goes, "writing about music is like dancing about architecture"---listening is the best way to experience it---but here's a song-by-song description.

TRASH TALK: There is a region of north central Mississippi known as the "Hill Country," just east of the much more famous Delta region. A haunting, droning, and sometimes incredibly funky style of blues grew out of the Hill Country (artists like Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside are key), and "Trash Talk" is my blend of that style and the slick funk commonly used in TV show themes from the '70s (think "Sanford & Son" and "Rockford Files"). Jason, the drummer on the album, plays some delightfully swampy grooves inspired by bands like The Meters.

FOLK SONG: Written while the 2016 presidential election returns were coming in (but before any results had been reported), this song was inspired by all the Americans who had been expressing genuine but wildly different passions and concerns about the future direction of the country. To reflect the chaotic disintegration of meaningful political discourse that had occurred during the campaign, the piano solo deliberately evolves into "free" playing with no clear harmony or rhythm. It then ends with an improvised solo piano interlude and a reprise of the original melody. If you like the solo piano interlude on "Folk Song," check out the Connemara album.

SPIRIT & SOLIDARITY: Brian Blade & The Fellowship Band is one of my favorite jazz small groups of the past 20 years, and they were the headliner at the 2016 Rootabaga Jazz Festival in Galesburg, Illinois. During the amazing concert, Brian commented that he felt a sense of "spirit and solidarity" from the small, close-knit jazz community in Galesburg. The next morning I woke up with the main melody of this song in my head.

QUANTITY OF LIFE: Most of this song was written on two occasions, years apart from one another; soberingly, on both occasions there were members of my immediate family in the hospital. We talk a lot about "quality of life," but at some point it's the quantity that really matters.

UPPER WEST SIDE: This and "In My Humble Opinion" are easily the oldest songs on the album, both having been written in about 2002. This one gets its name from the New York City energy it attempts to express, as well as the fact that when I brought a set of my songs to a lesson with Maria Schneider at her apartment on the Upper West Side, this was her favorite of the bunch.

IN MY HUMBLE OPINION: A ballad dedicated to my wife and daughter, the melody of this song has a long, slowly evolving arc consisting almost entirely of continuous quarter notes. Andy, the bassist on the album, plays a particularly beautiful solo.

INNOCENCE: If you're familiar with some of the simpler, song-like compositions of Keith Jarrett and Pat Metheny, this one will bring that style to mind. It is inspired by the concept of child-like innocence and the importance of maintaining the capacity to experience feelings of hope, wonder, and possibility as adults.

DOWNTOWN CREEP: This is a stylized musical caricature of gritty urban streetscapes and the slinky, uncertain feelings they inspire. Rhythmically, it shifts between a stuttering funk groove and stoptime medium swing, but moves to double-time swing for the piano solo.

TASTE & SEE: A fusion of a churning jazz waltz groove and gospel music is at the core of this song, which explains the choice of a phrase from the Bible as its title. I am also fascinated by the notion of experiencing spirituality through the senses, such as taste and sight.

Connemara: solo piano improvisations

to be released on October 18, 2019


Releasing a fully improvised solo piano album is a bold move. What led you to this release?

My fully improvised solo playing is probably more connected to my unusual pre-jazz history, so there's a story there. When I was in high school, my fellow music nerds and I took a break from our steady diet of progressive rock and went through a brief phase of listening to "new age" music (it's now known more commonly as music for meditation or relaxation; basically very calm, simple and repetitive music). It was all the rage then, and one of the most successful musicians in the genre was George Winston, a pianist. I had been studying and competing on classical piano for a number of years and I found Winston's music to be an intriguing way to move beyond classical, so I began improvising in that style. But it soon felt too musically limiting.

At the time, I was working in a record store owned by a keyboardist who had played in the San Francisco rock scene in the '60s, and he became something of a musical mentor of mine. When he learned about my interest in improvised solo piano, he introduced me to the work of Keith Jarrett, which made me realize how limitless the possibilities of solo piano could be. Around that same time, he also introduced me to electric fusion albums like Bitches Brew and Live/Evil and bands on the ECM label like Jack DeJohnette's Special Edition, all of which I disliked at first but soon came to love. So I went from George Winston to Bitches Brew in a very short time, picking up a lot of Jarrett and other modern acoustic jazz along the way. And this all happened before I began seriously studying straight-ahead jazz. I had heard Kind Of Blue and a little bit of Charlie Parker, but had not latched onto it yet.

That early combination of classical, progressive rock, meditation, Jarrett/ECM, and electric fusion music plays a big role in my fully improvised playing.

Wow, that is a story. So how did this album in particular come into existence?

We were testing different positions for the piano microphones that were going to be used on the trio sessions that resulted in the Quantity Of Life album, and I liked some of those test recordings enough to make a separate album from them. So the Connemara album is basically a happy accident.

And the pieces really are fully improvised? You had no written or preconceived material when you recorded them?

That's right. After they were recorded, I edited them for length and gave them titles, but I did not add any new material and nothing was ever written down.

Okay. On to the music itself.

Again, listening to it is far better than reading about it, but here is a piece-by-piece description.

DOVECOTE: This and "Where Old Men Gather" are the most meditative pieces on the album. This one moves from an evolving melodic section into more of a textural sound that evokes chimes or bells.

CONNEMARA: Lots of quick evolution here, mostly in a modern classical or free jazz vein. Aggressive figures eventually turn into a roaring, low-register drone. The title refers to an astonishingly beautiful area in the northwestern region of Ireland; the album cover art features a photograph of green marble indigenous to the area.

RISE & REPEAT: Repetitive, slowly-evolving percussive figures, again probably closest resembling modern classical music, from the minimalist school in this case. There's plenty of repeating and rising in this piece, so the title is quite literal in one sense, but it also describes what we all do every morning.

RAINBOW SYMPHONY REVISITED: The most adventurous free playing on the album is in this piece. One section of it reminded me of some music my then-5-year-old daughter improvised on the piano and immediately named "Rainbow Symphony," thus the title.

WHERE OLD MEN GATHER: A poignant piece I recorded on the first anniversary of my father's passing, and the most song-like piece on the album.