I started making the arrangements for my first album during my two year stint with folk singer Jim Post (1981-82). I had finished up my teaching position as head of the Berklee College of Music String Department at the end of the fall semester in 1980 and moved near Madison, WI, where I eventually met the rhythm section that joined me on the recording session. I cut a demo of some of the tunes with a Boston group with the idea of getting a record label interested in recording the final version. Of course, that never materialized so with the help of some friends and family in my hometown of Rockford, IL, I was able to cover the cost of the session.
Three of the band members were living in Madison at the time. Guitarist Mike Dowling was playing with Dr. Bop and the Headliners, Peter Dominguez had been the bass player at the jazz string summer camp I started in Shell Lake, WI (1979) and he introduced me to pianist Randy Tomasello. Peter had just finished his studies at UW with Richard Davis and was able to borrow Jimmy Blanton's bass for the session which added a special historic dimension to the project. Milwaukee-based drummer Steve Zenz has been a long time musical colleague and we connected almost every summer up at the Shell Lake Arts Center jazz camps.
We recorded in the summer of 1982 at Studiomedia in Evanston, IL. Benj Kanters was the engineer and we played live for two days and mixed for two days. At some point Howard Levy stopped by with his harmonica and laid down a version of "Save the Struggle" and "Orange Shoes" with us. Still have those tapes somewhere...
Since this was my first artistic statement to the world as a jazz violinist I chose some cover material that would be familiar but not overdone, but I also wanted to establish myself as a writer so I included four original tunes. Back in the day of the two sided LP the order of tunes was a very important consideration so I carefully planned the journey I wanted the listener to take.
"Fourth Dimension" - this is one of the few tunes I've actually written on the violin. I just put my fingers down in a pattern that laid out a blues riff in perfect fourths on the G string and added a slow swinging groove. It turned into a twelve bar blues with a slight twist in the chord progression near the end with some rhythmic hits from the band. The music fades in with the drums coming out of nowhere, then the bass riff appears, piano and guitar fill in, violin enters with some spacey sounds, we come up to full volume and on to the melody. It's cool and bluesy and represents one of my all time favorite styles to listen to and play. I've since arranged this for string orchestra as part of the String Alternatives series by Alfred Music.
"In a Fog" - the title track is a ballad I wrote on guitar while watching a bank of fog roll in over the cornfield at a farmhouse I was staying in near Stoughton, WI. I still like to play this as a guitar instrumental when I'm home.
"Greensleeves" - in my early days of practicing jazz on the violin I would seldom have a band to play with and had to come up with tunes to play solo which is a bit of a challenge with a single line melody instrument like the violin. This is one of the tunes that popped up one day that allowed me to play in a straight classical style but then crank it up into a fast jazz waltz using my bow to create a groove in the absence of a drummer. Since I am a huge Grateful Dead fan, I decided to incorporate a space jam in the middle of the arrangement. Randy Tomasello plays an outstanding piano solo. I would often close the first half of my concerts with this and one time someone came up to me at intermission and said, "Thanks for ruining my favorite tune!" I asked which one and she said, "Greensleeves." I explained that I had been playing it like that for years and the crowd always goes crazy for it. "What did you dislike about it?" She replied, "You Californiaized it!" I took that to mean she did not appreciate the spacey, "new age" section in the middle. The ironic thing about it was - and I'm not making this up - we were in California!
"Sunday Song" - this is the place where you would flip the record over and start the second side as if you had just experienced an intermission. Those days are gone now with CDs and the shuffle button - not that there's anything wrong with that... This is another ballad I wrote on guitar in my Brookline, MA basement apartment. (Guess what day it was.) Joining me on violin is the late jazz violin legend from Chicago, Johnny Frigo. I met Johnny during my gigs with Jim Post in Chicago. He would sit in when we played Holstein's on Lincoln Avenue. I invited him to be a special guest on a couple of tunes and I think this was one of his first jazz violin recordings in some years as he had spent a significant part of his career as a studio bass player in Chicago.
"Orange Shoes" - another tune written on violin - this time a more uptempo be-bop influenced blues. I actually owned a pair of orange shoes at the time. I wish I still had them!
"Save the Struggle" - the title came from a saying my grandfather would utter from time to time. It's an uptempo Latin number I wrote on guitar while playing the chord progression and humming a melody that fit. I even overdubbed a short harmony part on the violin at one point.
"Swing Low" - I started playing this in my practice room at the University of Illinois where I spent my first two years of college - 1974-6. I was playing fiddle and guitar in a country rock group, Appaloosa, and the music of Asleep at the Wheel and Bob Wills was whirling around in my head. I remember trying to get that swing rhythm going with my bow and, not having much repertoire under my fingers, this old gospel tune emerged. Towards the end of the arrangement, the band drops out and Johnny Frigo and I jam on a duet. I closed my concerts with this for many years. I walked out of the studio with a master tape of my first album and no record deal. I hired my friend Bob Postel to shop it around and he was able to convince Bruce Kaplan of Flying Fish Records in Chicago to release it. Thanks, Bob! So in the summer of 1983 my first record was released on vinyl and I was living in Eau Claire, WI ready to hit the road in my 1976 VW Campervan. Life was good... and it still is!
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