Saturday, November 17, 2012

Curnow, Metheny and Mays

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

I was going to add the phrase - “not a law firm” – to the title of this piece, but then I realized that it was an unnecessary qualifier.

Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays are names even more widely known in musical circles outside of Jazz and Jazz cognoscenti have been aware of Bob Curnow’s contributions to the music for many years.

In all honesty, I was just looking for a vehicle to present Bobby Shew’s masterful trumpet work on Bob Curnow’s big band arrangement of Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays’ tune, Always and Forever.

As sometimes happens, I made the video using this track from Bob Curnow’s L.A. Big Band: The Music of Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays [MAMA Foundation MMF 1009] and then backed into this piece.

The following annotation details the evolution of Bob Curnow’s career as a composer and arranger for big bands, as well as, his current activities as the proprietor of Sierra Music. You can checkout more about the later at The site also includes a biography on Bob.

Its almost impossible to encapsulate the overarching musical careers of Pat Metheny and to a somewhat lesser extent that of Lyle Mays.

I first became aware of their music on a 1978 ECM LP entitled The Pat Metheny Group [1-1114].

Although I was never a big fan of the Jazz-Rock-Fusion genre, some aspects of it appealed to me because in the hands of capable musicians, aspects of it could offer new approaches to developing melodies and alternative harmonies. I also liked the looser feel to rhythm that some of this music conveyed.

Of course, the overall texture or sound of the genre was heavily influenced by the use of electronics, particularly synthesizers.

What attracted me to the music of The Pat Metheny Group was the fact that it was easy on the “Rock” while being heavy on the use of electronic instruments to advance beautiful themes and interesting new approaches to harmonies such as the use of different tonal centers and chromaticism.

Pat and Lyle created music that was lighter in sonority and that just seemed to float, rhythmically.

Their music evoked moods and was easy to “visualize.” It had a down home feel to it and contained some elements of blues, country-and-western and folk.

As described by Richard Cook and Brian Morton in their Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.:

“Metheny seemed content to drop his playing into whatever con­text it might find. …. At this time Meth­eny favored a clean, open tone with just enough electronic damping to take the music out of 'classic’ jazz-guitar feeling, but he clearly owed a great debt to such urban pastoralists as Jim Hall and Jimmy Raney, even if he seldom moved back to bebop licks.

The Metheny Group albums settled the guitarist's music into the niche from which he is still basically working: light, easily digested settings that let him play long, meticulous solos which can as often as not work up a surprising intensity. Pat Metheny Group and American Garage each have their ration of thoughtful improvising which the guitarist settles inside a gently propulsive rhythm, more ruralized than the beefy urban beats of the con­temporary fusion bands.

That strain also colors the playing and composing of Mays, who has been Metheny's principal collabo­rator for 20 years. Scarcely a major voice in his own right - … - Mays is the perfect second banana. He feeds Metheny all kinds of tasteful orchestration without getting too much in his way.

New Chautauqua is a rare all-solo album in the Metheny canon. A pleasant, sweet-toned diversion, it hints at the multifarious-ness; with various electric and acoustic settings, including a i5-string harp-guitar, with which Metheny has grown fascinated in recent times.”

Given these descriptions of the form and format of the music of Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays, imagine my surprise when in 1994 I stumbled upon a recording entitled Bob Curnow’s L.A. Big Band Plays The Music of Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays [MAMA Foundation MMF 1009].

I had a fledgling awareness of Bob Curnow as a budding arranger for some of the bands that the legendary Stan Kenton led in the 1970s before his passing in 1979 and I knew of his work with Stan in marketing and distributing the band’s music through Kenton’s Creative World enterprises.

But never in a million years would I have figured the Metheny/Mays musical canon fitting into the big bold sound of a Kenton-like orchestral setting.

If anyone had proposed it to me conceptually, I would have thought of it as a musical contradiction in terms.

And yet, I was holding the realized promise of such a union in my hand; all I had to do was buy it, take it home and play it.

Which is exactly what I did and much to my delight, the combination of Pat and Lyle’s music as orchestrated and arranged for big band by Bob worked extremely well together.

 As Bob Curnow alludes in his insert notes to the recording: the big band arrangements of Metheny and Mays music became one example of what Stan Kenton’s Orchestra might have sounded like in the 1980's and beyond.

Bob Blumenthal had this to say about the music on Bob Curnow’s L.A. Big Band Plays The Music of Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays.

© -Bob Blumenthal, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Acoustic and electric. These are the categories most frequently employed to compartmentalize jazz these days.  Many diehards in each camp will tell you that never the twain shall meet. Obviously, they have not heard this incredible album.

Bob Curnow’s L.A. Big Band Plays The Music of Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays
is an amazingly successful translation to the idiom of jazz big band of music originally created in an electric context. The source material, a dozen compositions from the book of the Pat Metheny Group, was created by musicians who have never allowed simplistic categories to place restrictions on their imaginations.  It has been adapted by a kindred spirit who, while working from a more traditional base, has an equally open mind and the requisite big ears.

Bob Curnow's name is not as familiar as Pat Metheny's, yet he too has enjoyed a rich and diverse career. Curnow was a trombonist with The Stan Kenton Orchestra (which also performed his compositions and arrangements) and served as A&R Director, General Manager and Producer for Kenton's Creative World label.

His conducting career has brought him to the podium of symphony orchestras and jazz ensembles throughout the United States, and his extensive experience as an educator includes the presidency of the International Association of jazz Educators, teaching positions at California State Los Angeles, Michigan State and Case Western Reserve Universities, and an eight year directorship of the McDonald's Ail-American High School jazz Band during which he helped to discover and nurture many now-prominent jazz musicians.  Sierra Music Publications, his publishing company, carries charts from the likes of Bill Holman and Maynard Ferguson and Bob's own arrangements of the music of the Yellowjackets and others.   Finally, he is a long-standing fan of the Pat Metheny Group.

"The music inspired me from the first time I heard it," Curnow explains.  "I initially transcribed If I Could just to find out how the piece worked and exactly what Pat was doing." Curnow then went on to complete some 12 arrangements of compositions by Pat Metheny and/or Lyle Mays.  Working from source material heavily steeped in electronic and synthesized sound was no deterrent to Curnow's labors.  He was responding to the strengths of Metheny's music — to its heart, its sophistication and its ability to simultaneously communicate to a mass audience while still providing a musical challenge.

Further, Curnow recognized that the dynamic and coloristic range of the Metheny Group was not that far removed from the directions he had pursued with the Stan Kenton band.   "From my perspective," he says, "the earliest keyboards, going back to violin and flute stops on organs, were frequently trying to emulate acoustic sounds. When I hear Pat's group, I layer in acoustic sounds in my mind. To my ears, the possibility of presenting this music in a big band context has always been there."

Possibility is not realization, however, and Curnow has done a magnificent job of writing arrangements that preserve the integrity of the originals without deviating from the big band tradition he knows so well. In each case, Curnow's rendering retains the nucleus and builds logically upon it, using the larger palette of the jazz orchestra and its expanded timbral possibilities to transform these already sublime pieces. The result is nothing less than a series of masterworks for jazz ensemble. Fans of the Metheny Group who spend little or no time listening to big bands will feel immediately comfortable here, just as big band fans who may never have listened to Metheny could be forgiven for assuming that these pieces are simply original works of uncommon quality. It was all there in Metheny's music, and now it has been preserved in a new context by Curnow.

It takes more than a skilled arranger to bring off a project of this scope, which is where the talented ensemble that Curnow has assembled comes in.  "As exciting and challenging as it was to score these pieces for big band," Curnow states, "it was even more thrilling to hear them played by these magnificent musicians.   It was truly the culmination of a ten-year dream."

"These arrangements have gone through a real metamorphosis in preparation for the recording," Curnow adds.  "Several were altered to fit the players, and to create solo space for as many members of the band as possible."  The role of guitarist Paul Viapiano is indicative.  "There was originally very little guitar in these charts, but I loved the way Paul played and wanted him to be heard."  As his feature track See the World makes clear, Viapiano was creating very much in the spirit of respectful individuality that characterizes Curnow's arrangements.  The same can be said for the other musicians.  Examples abound, from Bobby Shew's heartfelt flugelhorn on Always and Forever and Danny House's alto sax on If I Could to Bob Sheppard's volatile soprano sax on The First Circle and the simple eloquence of Bill Cunliffe's piano throughout. …

And we could go on listing such treats (the liquid clarinets behind Lockart earlier in the piece, those brass shakes at the start of See the World ...) for pages. These are Curnow's gems, his way of honoring music that clearly means a great deal to him in its original form. A string of such gems has created one large triumph — an album which will be enjoyed alike by every Pat Metheny Group fan, big band fan and plain old music fan who hears it.”

The liner notes also contains these thoughts by Bob Curnow a about the project.

© -Bob Curnow, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

To many people, the words "big band" conjure up an image of music from the ‘30s and ‘4Os. But I have never felt that the big band should be limited by a style created long ago. While I have a deep and abiding respect for the older music, I also know that the music of the '70s, '80s and '90s works beautifully in this medium. To me, a "big band" is simply a band that's big — in this case big enough to include twenty of the best jazz musicians in the world.

There are two unmistakable and pervasive influences on this body of work. The first is, of course, Pat Metheny and his unique and timeless compositions — often created in collaboration with his partner Lyle Mays. The second is the arranging styles of those who wrote for the Stan Kenton Orchestra during its almost 40 years of existence. Whether it was Bill Holman, Pete Rugolo, Johnny Richards, Lennie Niehaus or Stan himself, my love of the big band comes from years of listening to, studying and playing the music created by these men for that great orchestra.  Kenton's composers were always on the cutting edge, using the entire dynamic range and colorful palette of the big band.  Stan would have it no other way.

The question has been asked: "What would the Kenton band sound like today?"  Perhaps a little like this CD.  In retrospect, I think I wrote these arrangements as though the Kenton band still existed. I certainly tried to use the hallmarks of that
band — the many colors, the powerful soloists, and the range of dynamics, from quiet and pensive to roaring ….”

The following video contains a track from Bob Curnow’s L.A. Big Band Plays The Music of Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays in the form of “ …Bobby Shew's heartfelt flugelhorn on Always and Forever.”  Caution, Bobby’s gorgeous playing on Bob Curnow’s arrangement is guaranteed to make your heart skip a beat.

Perhaps after you’ve had a chance to listen to this music you’ll understand why I found it to be so impressive and enjoyable.