Playing Scrabble (with video!)

Deciding the repertoire for a CD is always difficult: what's the best blend of music styles? Do old charts work well with the new ones? What story do I want to tell on this particular album? 

Brian Monroney

Even though most of the tunes on this upcoming album feature Brazilian styles, I decided to include a bebop chart that I wrote several years ago, after re-writing parts of the arrangement for these particular musicians (yeah, making it a little harder!). This chart is a contrafact: a new melody built on the chord changes of another composition. This technique has been frequently used by bebop players since the 1940s (Charlie Parker's "Ornithology," written over the chords of the song “How High the Moon,” is just one of many examples).

David Joyner and Mark Ivester

I love to write and arrange bebop, especially those intricate and chromatic, 5-part soli sections! While writing the chart, I remember telling my wife that that process felt like playing a game; "it's like solving some sort of puzzle," I told her while trying to find a title for it. But I certainly didn't want “Puzzle” to be the title. Besides being ugly, “puzzle” also didn't seem to offer the right analogy; after all, a puzzle requires finding the “right” piece, the only correct answer that solves the “problem.” Bethany then suggested “Scrabble,” which is a much better metaphor for the fun, the mental exercise, and the infinite possibilities of the arranging process. 

It was only a couple of years after writing “Scrabble” that I came across a quote by Duke Ellington, saying that “playing 'bop' is like playing scrabble with all the vowels missing." That clever analogy might be the closest I will ever get to Ellington's wit (let alone his talent); so I enjoyed the coincidence! 

The recording of “Scrabble” last March was a blast! I want to highlight here the work of our amazing rhythm section: David Joyner (piano), Brian Monroney (guitar), Clipper Anderson (bass), and Mark Ivester (drums). The arrangement is long and quite involved, but experienced rhythm sections players -- who have been playing together for many years – made it seem easy! 

I met David after I became Director of Jazz Studies at Pacific Lutheran University, a position he had held for many years, until retiring in 2018. I first saw Brian play with David's group at PLU Jazz Under the Stars series, some five years ago, and I knew right away that I wanted to collaborate with him at some point; he's a great melodic improviser and generous accompanist. Mark and Clipper are true legends of the Pacific Northwest; phenomenal musicians, they're also music instructors at PLU, and I feel so honored and lucky to work alongside them, both teaching and performing. 

These musicians' level of professionalism, focus, and musicianship – in addition to being wonderful human beings to have around -- is truly admirable! These guys nailed “Scrabble” in one take!

Another shout out goes to the soloists on this chart: Alexey Nikolaev (tenor sax), Kareem Kandi (tenor sax), David Joyner (piano), Carter Eng (trumpet), and Mark Ivester (drums). As always, I can't wait to share the whole finalized track with all of you!  

Here's a 1-min clip from the recording of “Scrabble,” my contrafact based on the chord changes of “Joy Spring,” a composition by the great Clifford Brown. The other musicians you hear on this recording are: Tom Bergeron (soprano sax), Mark Taylor (alto sax), Alexey Nikolaev (tenor sax), Kareem Kandi (tenor sax), Kate Olson (baritone sax), Andy Omdahl (lead trumpet), Keith Karns (trumpet), Carter Eng (trumpet), Michael Van Bebber (trumpet), Nathan Vetter (lead trombone), Connor Eisenmenger (trombone), Ryan Wagner (trombone), and Nelson Bell (bass trombone). And to be clear: this is not the final mix, just a rough mix I did at home to share with you. Enjoy!           


June 22, 2024


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