Strange Fellowe: The Band

posted by Nick DePinna, composer

Though 75% of the music in the first act of “Strange Fellowe” was composed within the past twelve months, early versions of the remaining 25% date back as far as four years ago.  It was therefore a long awaited and truly inspiring experience to see the music come to life in its first rehearsals with real musicians (alive!) this week.  “Act I: At Ease” clocks in at twenty-eight minutes of almost completely through-composed music, therefore one can imagine the challenges of balancing explicitly notated material on the page with elements of freedom and improvisation.  Yes, the parts that we very specifically write out will be performed exactly as we intended, however incorporating portions in which we merely give “slashes” and chord symbols (relatively typical in jazz music) often have a higher ceiling of musical quality.

This particular issue, of course, is only at stake when dealing with creative and brilliant musicians.  I’m trying not to gush too much about the individuals involved here, but it is hard to veil my enthusiasm for these unique and superb artists.

Pianist Ross Garren and I have been close friends for over seven years, and since my first experience making music with him, his sensitivity and carefully lush harmonic sensibilities have burrowed their way into my imagination as the epitome of beautiful piano playing – he is a cool and refreshing dip in crystal clear water.  Ross is also coincidentally an incredible harmonicist, though he will not be performing on harmonica in the opera.  It is always astounding to me how when he picks up a different instrument, he takes on a completely different, wrenching, and fiery personality.  In addition to his valuable assets as a performer, Ross is also an incredible composer, one of my favorite, in fact.

Though it was initially hard to get my mind around the formidable breadth of his musical personality, it all begins to make sense when I remember that it was he who strong-armed me into turning the corner on visionary musicians such as Aaron Neville, Michael McDonald, and Steve Winwood.  Yes, you laugh…but spend a day with Ross and you might do the same.

The youngest musician in the band is bassist Owen Clapp, currently a UCLA student in the Department of Ethnomusicology at UCLA.  Owen immediately turned heads when he entered UCLA as a freshman; it was obvious that his musical maturity was beyond his years, but it wasn’t until Hitomi and I heard him perform a solo feature recently with the UCLA Mingus Ensemble that I realized what a unique and valuable musical asset he was, for multiple reasons.  First, his improvisation and underlying feel is inherently melodic, a trait all too rare in bassists.  The instrument and the register is the foundation on which the remainder of the music stands, so for that key element to feel alive and undulating is most extraordinary.  Secondly, his sound is superb – deep, warm, and enveloping, yet not boomy or overbearing – another quality all to rare.

Aside from being a first-rate acoustic bassist, Owen is also a seriously excellent electric player, on which he has an equally seriously excellent sound.  He was recently on a national tour with hip-hop artist Dumbfoundead and the Breezy Lovejoy Band.

While each element in the core of any band is equally important, the drums, more so than the rest, have the responsibility of holding everyone else together.  In many cases this is less true and in some others significantly less of a challenge, however the music of Strange Fellowe is in almost constantly shifting meters; it is therefore most essential for the drums to be consistent, informed, and bulletproof – let alone flowing, musical, lyrical, and sonically juicy.

Drummer and percussionist Michael Lindsay is all of these things.  I only met Mike a few years ago, and because I heard him performing with a groove-based jam band, I made the unfair and unfortunate assumption that he was simply an excellent groove drummer.  I couldn’t have been more wrong – Mike is one of the most versatile and sensitive drummers I have ever heard.  The music flowing from him is, yes, grooving, but also lively and lyrical – he evokes the stretching and compressing of time, causes inadvertent breath-holding, even fluctuates heart rates.  On top of that, he reads, interprets, and projects quite difficult written music with ease, style, and grace. And if that weren’t enough, he is also breaking some ground experimenting with midi-triggers and designing equipment to facilitate tackling such challenges.  I do believe that he’ll be using some of these resources in the opera.

I am so fond of these guys. All three of them were our first-choice musicians, and we are so fortunate to have them working on this project with us.

To round out the core of the band, I’ll be playing synthesizers…nothing flashy (we hope!)…just enough to warm up the ambience of the room and add some orchestration options.  And in addition to this core, three other musicians, referred to as “The Bellowes” (both saxophonists and vocalists…all three of them!) will perform simultaneously as a part of the band, and onstage as part of the drama.  More to follow on those excellent people in a later post.

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