Pianist, composer and New York-music-scene veteran Robin Connell has very little patience for musicians who whine. In fact, Connell--currently living in Greeley, where she's working on a doctorate in musical composition at the University of Northern Colorado--has integrated a no-complaints philosophy into her outlook on both life and music.
"A lot of musicians get into this space where they expect that their work should gain immediate acceptance and they should have wonderful gigs each week where they play only original music and everybody loves it," Connell observes. "They get to the point that they think they deserve it. Well, that's not real. That's utopia. Look, there's nobody out there who really likes their job all the time. And a lot of musicians expect that they should. But look at the guy who's out there pumping gas. Do you think he likes what he's doing? I enjoy teaching, but when it comes down to it, I'd rather be playing. But that would be perfect--and life's not perfect."
Fortunately, Connell's career has not been as dreary as she makes it sound. A musician who discovered jazz at nineteen, she says, "I went to New York in 1979, intending to stay only three months. At the time, I had just graduated from college and was living in a tepee on an Indian reservation in northern Michigan and waitressing at a nearby resort--and through a friend of a friend, I was offered a job in this all-girl rock band in New York. That's the last thing I wanted to do, but I wanted to play, and nothing else was happening for me. So I took it."
Her flirtation with rock didn't take long. Connell soon received a grant to study composition with Earl McIntyre, a bass trombonist most prominently known for his arrangements of the music made by the Art Ensemble of Chicago. In addition, she began leading her own fusion band. "I had mixed feelings about doing it," she confesses. "That's why I'm not doing it now. I tend to enjoy playing it more than listening to it. But I eventually became reacquainted with acoustic jazz, and it just kind of took off. I've never looked back."
Indeed, Connell's affinity for acoustic sounds led to her heavy involvement with experimental-music performers while part of an organization called Musicians of Brooklyn Initiative (MOBI). During the same period, she was a member of a BMI study forum in which she and ten other composers gave annual presentations of new pieces they crafted while working under the BMI umbrella. For the past five years Connell's also been on the summer faculty of the Interlochen Arts Camp in Michigan; among her duties there has been to conduct a high school jazz band. And in 1993 Connell and the other members of her quartet were chosen as artists-in-residence for a Garden City (Kansas) Community College program funded by the National Endowment for the Arts.
In 1991 Connell moved to Colorado, largely because she wanted to be near her fiance, Paul Brewer (a trombonist and director of jazz studies at the University of Southern Colorado, in Pueblo). More recently, she earned the 1994 Co-Visions Recognition award; the money that went along with this acknowledgment enabled her to release Travelin', a collection of her work that features Brewer, bassist Peter Huffaker, trumpeter Hugh Ragin, flutist Jill Allen and drummer George Thompson. The disc includes two original compositions that fuse swing, classical and contemporary jazz styles; Connell notes that this approach "represents one of my other sides."
Elsewhere on Travelin', Connell reimagines tunes such as "Sweet Georgia Brown" and Cole Porter's "Love for Sale" by experimenting with new time changes, rhythms and harmonies. "I like to take familiar material that everyone knows and rethink and arrange it differently," she reveals. "One reason is that I like hearing original compositions, but there's just something wonderful about playing standards. On the other hand, I'll be damned if I want to go out and hear `Take the "A" Train' done the way Duke did it. I want to hear something differently, not done the traditional way. That's already been done."
Connell has garnered praise and criticism for this stance. Still, she feels strongly that "you have to do what you have to do, no matter if anybody likes it." And since the mid-Eighties, when she suffered from tendinitis so severe that she was unable to play her instrument of choice for two years, she has had a renewed sense of what music means to her. "At first I thought I just wanted to be able to play again--but then that didn't matter, if the pain would just go away," she remembers. "Now I look on simply being able to play as a very special thing."
Equally important to Connell is a lesson taught her by a vocal coach with whom she studied during her forced sabbatical from the piano. "I never learned a bit from her musically," she admits, "but I learned a lot about attitude. She said there are no excuses. None. There are no excuses for not going after what you want. Maybe I'll get to the place I want to be musically. Maybe I won't. But I'm not going to stop trying."
Robin Connell, with Paul Brewer, Bill Murray, Hugh Ragin, Mike Smith, Erik Turkman and Linda Maich. 8 p.m. Saturday, February 4, Ricketson Auditorium, Denver Museum of Natural History, $7/$5 students and seniors, 719-549-2366.
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