Orchestral Maneuvers in the Works
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."
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.'"
"Technically speaking, this is a repertory orchestra that goes beyond the fake or real book. We spend hundreds of dollars to get original transcripts or scores to do it as close as possible to the original work," says Lemski. "There are just a few [repertory jazz orchestras] in the nation that are dedicated to it."
Under Baker's direction, the Creative Music Works Orchestra has presented the music of Charles Mingus and rare charts from Dizzy Gillespie's '40s touring band. In October 1998, the ensemble welcomed New York's Maria Schneider, who guest-conducted in a set that included her own original material. Time and economics permitting, both Lemski and Baker would like to bring in more visiting contemporary composers and perform more than twice a year.
"The orchestra is not as good as a New York band yet," says Lemski. "It doesn't play enough, it doesn't rehearse enough. It can't make that statement. But it's getting better and better, and it's very serious, and it's a lot of fun."
Baker shares the optimism. "The two things that I really like about the artistic-director thing is a) I can program anything I want; and b) I can hire the people to play it, and I know it's going to be played right," he says with a laugh, perhaps implying that his students at the Lamont School just might occasionally miss a note. "Denver, Colorado, has some of the best players in the world," he continues. "I don't hire any second-stringers. The band list of people I draw on is fifty musicians. And they're all top-notch at the type of things I would call them for."
In preparation for the orchestra's next gig, Baker put out a specific call for West Coast Jazz players (featured saxophonist and clarinetist Rich Chiaraluce is among those who responded). "The moniker 'West Coast Jazz' was applied mostly by Eastern establishment intellectuals and critics and media people, usually in a disparaging way, to describe the music made by people that lived in Los Angeles," he explains, noting that the California group included Mingus, Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy. "It was, in a sense, stigmatized as being too cool, too over-intellectual."
An Oregon native, Baker defends his left-coast brethren. "I find it to be intellectual in a sense, but it has its own type of passion to it. And I find some of the pieces really attractive. Strangely, what I decided to do was focus on a couple of writers [Marty Paich and Bill Holman] from the West Coast, and one artist, [saxophonist] Art Pepper, to try to present music that was passionate."
Baker goes on to praise Holman's blues phrasing and "really cool counterpoint" as examples of West Coast Jazz that go against the preconception. In keeping with the CMW ethic of pushing boundaries, Baker relishes the idea of contrast. "The ironic thing is that [Holman] was first employed most notably in the Stan Kenton Orchestra, whose [wall-of-sound concept] was completely different from what Bill Holman was writing," says Baker. "He was writing these really lean, muscular counterpoint tunes, which have a completely different sinuous power to them. It's like the difference between George Foreman and [Olympic track star] Bob Beamon!"
"The wall-of-sound stuff is more in line with what Joel's band plays," says Baker, referring to Joel Kaye and his 24-Piece Neophonic Big Band, a Denver jazz staple. "They're a real Kenton repertory orchestra. We're concentrating on a portion of that Kentonesque repertoire that Joel's band doesn't concentrate on -- even though we're using a lot of the same players."
"My ultimate goal for the orchestra would be to have a recording contract doing original music and traveling to the major festivals here in Colorado and around the world," says Baker, half-seriously. "That would be the very coolest thing, but the humble responsibility of just performing this music -- whatever music we do -- together with such a great band is also enough."
In the meantime, plans for the Creative Music Works Orchestra are realistically ambitious. A concert of Colorado composers and arrangers is in the works. And a visit from Lawrence "Butch" Morris, a pioneer of "conduction," or conducted improvisation, is on the wish list.
Baker seems to relish his role in the orchestra as much as Lemski enjoys overseeing Creative Music Works as a whole. And their refusal to compromise the music is a strong common bond between the two jazzmen. But there are only so many hours in the day to donate to building the jazz life in Colorado. An orchestra leader needs a "straw boss" to manage and organize the musicians, advises Hess with a comical tone of voice. "There's something called the bandleader," he says. "Stan Kenton used to complain about it all the time. It's a crazy job."
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