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Orchestral Maneuvers in the Works

The Creative Music Works Orchestra brings jazz out of the closet.

The Creative Music Works Orchestra took its name from the small, nonprofit presenter of concerts and educational workshops that sponsors it, Creative Music Works. But the appellation could not be more appropriate. By presenting relatively obscure songs that have been meticulously dissected and then reassembled in imaginative ways, saxophonist Dr. Fred Hess, the orchestra's first director, and its current leader, Lynn Baker, have both taken extraordinary approaches to programming for repertory big-band jazz performances. And yes, it takes a lot of work -- and creativity.

There was the time in 1992, for example, when Hess did arrangements for a Duke Ellington concert. "It took me a week to reduce the scores, and I had a month to write like 150 pages of parts by hand," he says. "This was before I had my computer. That was about five solid weeks of work."

Under Hess, who teaches at Metropolitan State College of Denver, the orchestra grew to its current roster of nineteen musicians. "As it got bigger and bigger, it got to be more to do," he notes. "The last one I did was Gil Evans. I'd say I worked on those charts for four months, because I got some transcriptions from people that were very inaccurate. So I had to go back to the records."

Cool school: The Creative Music Works Orchestra's Lynn Baker directs students at the Lamont School of Music.
Cool school: The Creative Music Works Orchestra's Lynn Baker directs students at the Lamont School of Music.

Baker, who serves as associate professor, director of admissions and director of the Jazz Studies and Commercial Music Program at the University of Denver's Lamont School of Music, assumed the orchestra's directorship in late 1998, and he echoes Hess's sentiments about the job's laborious nature, as well as its tangible rewards. His music programming, band organizing and writing are, in essence, pro bono acts of kindness for CMW. Baker's preparations for the next orchestra concert, West Coast Jazz: Music From Stan Kenton's Big Band Book, are a good example of the demands of his volunteerism. "There's all the cataloguing," he says. "Three of the pieces for this show I had to transcribe myself and copy out all the parts. But that's not too bad, because then you learn more about the music."

Hess, one of Colorado's most celebrated jazzmen, left the orchestra last year in order to focus his energies on the Boulder Creative Music Ensemble, its precursor ("Getting Bolder," December 10, 1998). But his tenure with the orchestra is not without its own legacy. "It's developed and it's gone places," says Hess. "For me, it was a chance as a composer to really look at some of the great music and see how they did it. I learned immensely from it."

The tradition Hess established is appropriate considering the avant-garde nature of CMW, whose president, Alex Lemski, helped found the orchestra with Hess in 1992. A grassroots organization, CMW began hosting cutting-edge jazz performances in a LoDo art gallery in the late '80s and has since thrived, despite a lack of any outside sponsorship -- a financial marvel when one considers its decidedly non-commercial mission. Modern jazz musicians in the area have come to appreciate the group's consistent support of music that falls outside the mainstream, and fans of the avant-garde have grown to expect a CMW-sponsored concert calendar to be full of Colorado's -- and the world's -- most accomplished creative musicians. For its part, the Creative Music Works Orchestra generally presents two entirely new programs each year and helps fulfill CMW's goal of making "vital links with the larger jazz tradition."

Since the beginning, Baker and the Lamont School of Music have been among CMW's most ardent supporters. "They have been a saving grace, really part of our hearts, part of our mission," says Lemski. A versatile saxophonist and all-around jazz enthusiast since age twelve, Baker has collaborated with elders such as Lionel Hampton and Billy Taylor as well as edge-dwellers like John Zorn and Michael Formanek. Now Baker is applying his expertise and experience as the director of the orchestra and plans to continue guiding the band in the direction Hess charted.

As a repertory jazz group, the Creative Music Works Orchestra builds on a decades-old concept of reworking popular arrangements for a more modern audience. "Actually, the first such performance, believe it or not, would be John Hammond's Spirituals to Swing," says Hess. "Was that 1937? At that point, in the middle of the swing craze, they felt that they could look back over the last twenty years and see all these movements. So they had a concert. Benny Goodman was in it. Duke Ellington played."

During his time with the orchestra, Hess took pleasure in delving into jazz history -- and respectfully rewriting it, something Baker has continued to do. Even in the early '90s, however, big bands still did not enjoy easy access to arrangements and scores for classic jazz big bands. So Hess -- and now Baker -- often took the old-fashioned route of transcribing and making charts directly off the source records when necessary.

In the orchestra's early days, Hess's scholarship was matched by his sense of musical adventure, and he enjoyed creating new arrangements of standards like "Caravan" and "Take the A-Train" that actually incorporated and combined several different versions into one. Before his departure, he orchestrated often unconventional takes on such note- worthy composers as Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk, Gil Evans, Count Basie and Thad Jones. "My own feeling was that if I could keep using material that is existent and not make anything up or add things that didn't have a place in the first place, then I didn't see any reason why we couldn't have a little fun mixing and matching stuff," he says. "I like the idea of three versions of Duke Ellington becoming one. If you don't know those three versions, you would sit back and say 'Man, this is a great version.'"

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