Michael Arnowitt & Sweet Spontaneous

 

Come join pianist Michael Arnowitt and ImproVisions Jazz for a colorful journey into his unique musical landscapes. Sweet Spontaneous is a recording of 14 of Arnowitt’s jazz compositions, a major effort to present the music of this engaging new talent on the jazz scene.

 

Michael Arnowitt says, “We tend to listen to music in a seated, stationary position, but in reality music is all about motion and journey. To me, listening to a piece of music is like travelling through a varied landscape of rolling hills. We go up and down and round corners to see constantly changing vistas of different colors and textures.”

 

Take a listen to Sweet Spontaneous and enjoy a deep dive into the creative world of one of the most imaginative musicians of today.

 

 

Sweet Spontaneous

Notes by Michael Arnowitt

 

Against the Wind

 

Written in the summer of 2016, Against the Wind features a novel musical idea where a melody line is split up with some of its measures sung by a vocalist, some played by a tenor saxophone. Put together, the phrases interweave to create a melody I conceived of as like a multi-colored strand of yarn.

 

The initial impulse to write this song came from an image in a dream of the powerful gusts of a storm pushing a woman’s dress against her body as she continues to will her way forward. The three trombones form a Greek chorus, depicting waves and winds and commenting on the actions and emotions of the music. At the end, the dissonance between the singer holding a C and the saxophone holding a D-flat expresses a feeling of inner tension, of summoning the strength to persist despite the forces arrayed against you.

 

 

Bulgarian Hoedown

 

My favorite type of world music is Bulgarian, and this tune explores on a large canvas the evocative music, sometimes lonely, sometimes lively, of that country. Bulgarian Hoedown mixes together Bulgarian rhythm and harmony ideas with the language of jazz and a taste of the wild fiddling of the American hoedown. I was first inspired to write this song while observing on a trip to eastern Europe a husband-and-wife street musician couple playing on a bridge. The husband played violin with the four strings in the nonstandard tuning G-D-G-D which as in Cajun fiddling made it easier to play harmonized melodies similar to the main theme of this tune.

 

 

The Crossing (with reading of Langston Hughes’ poem Crossing)

 

Langston Hughes had a deep love of jazz and the blues, and a number of his poems reflect on the experience of music. Hughes’ poetry has always appealed to me, and I’ve enjoyed going to schools and having students read his poems out loud while I improvise piano accompaniments. His poem Crossing, with its broad images of a mountain, a stream, and the prairie has always moved me with what I imagine to be an autobiographical depiction of the shallowness of social support accorded him due to his race. In his 1926 essay, The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain, he speaks of the top of the mountain, perhaps not reached in this poem, as the place of true freedom and independence.

 

Musically, this slow ballad consists of descending lines falling from different melody notes, tumbling down like cascades. The bridge does not contrast with the opening section but rather continues the same idea underpinned by a long descending bass line and rich harmonies. Though the stream may have been crossed, we keep falling and returning to where we were.

 

 

Migratory Mood

 

In writing this song, I was certainly thinking literally of the migration of birds, with the soaring feeling of the melody, the sounds of bird calls, and the final gentle syncopated bass riff a likeness of the birds settling down back on the earth at the end of their flight. I was also thinking of migration figuratively, that is, if you wanted to make a major change in your life, you might say you were in a migratory mood.

 

 

Syria-us

 

My composition Syria-us emerged from a six month study I made of Syrian music and literature in 2016, when I organized a special benefit concert program entirely of Syrian music, writing, drama, and art to raise funds for humanitarian aid for Syrian refugees. In making my selection decisions for the program, I truly enjoyed researching the sacred and secular music, short stories, and poetry of this multicultural nation. My song combines Syrian rhythms and scales with the harmonies and proportions of a minor blues.

 

 

Pirouette

 

The first idea that came to me for Pirouette was not its melody, but its bass line. Remember the Greek myth of Sisyphus, fated to continually push a boulder up a hill only to find, when he was nearly at the top, it roll back down to the bottom? Pirouette’s bass line is like an upside down version of this. Each bass phrase begins on a high C and gradually descends stepwise almost, but not quite, to a low C; at the last possible moment, it suddenly bends back upwards to the high C and starts another descent. That’s the spiraling, circular pirouette motion. The descending bass line doesn’t resolve to the low C until the final note of the very last phrase of the song.

 

I thought the plaintive, rocking melody I composed above this bass line would be perfect for an oboe. Near the end of Pirouette the band cuts out and the oboe plays by itself a semi-classical, semi-jazz cadenza.

Finally, the pirouetting is done, gravity has its way and the descending line touches firm ground on a low C as the oboe rises up to its final, open-ended high note in response.

 

 

The Crying Candle

 

The Crying Candle is a reaction against the pessimism of the many dystopias popular today. The lyrics imagine a future where people have indeed learned how to live together without conflict. The narrator looks back in time to our strange and painful present. The song’s lyrics flips the script on all the old jazz standards where the singer in the present is sad over a love affair that has fallen apart but looks back fondly on the past when the relationship had been going well; here it’s the future where all is rosy, and the narrator looks back into their past (our present) where everything is going terribly wrong. The song is set so far in the future that I thought it possible society might have forgotten about the sad history of long ago generations, except the candle's tears remember. After writing this song, it occurred to me that perhaps the words “ember” and “remember” might be linked.

 

 

Third Shift

 

There’s something about odd numbers that I’ve always preferred. How wonderful it is that the piano’s 12 notes are divided into 7 white and 5 black keys, and how duller music would be if it had been designed with 6 white and 6 black. Even numbers are just too square and symmetrical, and you could even say jazz developed swing in order to get away from all those even divisions. Rather than the usual 4-measure long phrases, this song is based on 3-measure phrases which give the tune a circular lilt. Third Shift also refers to the bass line’s descending by leaps in thirds, as well as the song’s late-night ambiance, the time of third shift workers.

 

 

Shapka Swing

 

Shapkas are hats, which in Bulgaria can be colorful and have interesting geometric patterns. The tune features different duos: two trumpets, two trombones, and a third duo of a klezmer-like violin and clarinet. High energy, lively Bulgarian folk rhythms fuel this number, their crisscrossing patterns not unlike the hat.

 

 

Elegy for Richard

 

Elegy for Richard is a memorial composition I wrote for my father Richard Arnowitt, who was a theoretical physicist who in his lifetime had over 300 scientific papers published. I began to compose this tune just a couple of days after he died, as I was keeping my mother company. Many people have noted the similarities between what scientists and musicians do, although in my experience nearly all scientists love music, but not necessarily the other way around. At a few points in this song there are episodes of cosmic, starry music meant to depict my father’s lifelong journeying to understand the universe, from large objects down to subatomic particles. About a week before he died, after a stroke, he had a couple of days where he didn’t speak English words, but only mumbled physics phrases. I can only wonder what discoveries he was trying to make in these final thoughts.

 

 

Medium Message

 

The word “medium” in the title was intended to have a double meaning, conveying both the sense of being at some mystical séance event as well as a neutrality that is beyond good or bad. The opening section of this tune has a suspended feel featuring a loping bass line in a cyclic pattern 11 beats long. The middle section picks up the tempo slightly and has more harmonic motion and flow to contrast with the floating music of the opening. The supernatural returns at the end as the musical fragments dissipate weightlessly into the atmosphere.

 

 

Ascent (with reading of Maya Angelou’s poem Still I Rise)

 

About a month after Maya Angelou’s death in 2014, I composed this song in her honor. While inspired by her celebrated poem Still I Rise, the music is more based on the mood and tone of the words and rarely aims to set any specific phrases of the original poetry. The late David Budbill told me that he felt jazz should strive to maintain a sense of defiance, and although this poem is one of the most classic expressions of defiance I know, it is so much more. I love the quirky, jujitsu-like moves that say, you think you’ve got me down? Like dust, I’ll rise, like air, I’ll rise: the lightest elements on earth will evade your grasp.

 

The poem also conveys a great message of hope. Maya Angelou said this poem even helped sustain her own self in hard times, and the optimistic, strength-giving words of this poem have been known to have nourished people of all races. I was intrigued by a comment Angelou made in an interview a few months before her death: “Courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently.”

 

 

Midnight Forest

 

As in Against the Wind, the origin of this song was an image from one of my dreams. Here the scene is a forest of tall trees looming above, in the middle of the night. A path curves left and right through different parts of the forest, with giant trees, perhaps redwoods, seeming to lean and arc overhead in the dim moonlight. I am fascinated by trees and science’s recent discoveries of how their ecosystems below ground interconnect.

 

In this composition I was exploring the concept of a melody of chords. Instead of the usual succession of individual notes played by a single musician, here each melody “note” is a rich 6-note chord played by flugelhorns and trombones. The brass chorale harmonies are based on stacks of my favorite interval, the perfect fifth. Being neither major nor minor, fifths have a more flexible, open-ended sound that appeals to me. Many tunes on Sweet Spontaneous feature fifths in the melody or harmony, such as Bulgarian Hoedown and Medium Message.

 

 

Street Strut

 

A jazz-funk number based on a twenty-year old memory of African-American life on the sidewalks of Washington, D.C. Street Strut incorporates urban audio clips with Colin Stranahan’s “action groove” drumming he said he learned from his father. Is the street not an inanimate object, but alive? This song says yes.

 

“Sweet Spontaneous” is the first line of a poem by E.E. Cummings, one of Michael Arnowitt’s favorite poets.

 

 

Texts

 

Lyrics by Michael Arnowitt

 

Against the Wind

 

Here I am

against the wind

standing tall

I do not cower before the gale

 

Here I am

against the wind

standing tall

The gusts are strong and my body weak

 

Waves of wind come from the sea

strong gusts try to push me back

pressing my dress into me – I resist

 

I do

I do not

Here I am

against the wind

standing tall

I do not cower before the gale

 

against the wind

against the wind

but I’m standing strong

 

My heart beats

 

Here I am

here I am

 

I do

 

The Crying Candle

 

Once upon a time there was

in a world you could not imagine

Discord and darkness, fighting all the time

the candle

it cries its tears rememb’ring

all that they went through

 

What a time it was back then

seemed like an impossible dream unending

It seemed our fate, to hate and hate return

and darkness

fell down upon the land

the candle’s tears remember

 

Now we have such harmony

in those days they could not believe and love

So many battles, conflict was the rule

their sadness

we have forgotten

a trail of embers burning

 

Now it is a time for love

we have learned to share and to live together

How could they fight in endless war

In flick’ring flame,

drop by lighted drop,

the crying candle weeps for them a tear

 

Street Strut

 

You

walking down the street

to the constant beat

of the sway

you’ve got that struttin’ goin’ down with your feet

 

I

like the way you move

down the sidewalk groove

it’s the way

your street strut has a swag that I just approve

 

O

each morning I see you

Settin’ up your wares

talkin’ to your fares

haven’t got a care in the world

 

We

could be quite a pair

the sidewalk we would share

and each day

the two of us could join as one heart and beat

the rhythm’s under our feet

as ev’ry day we would meet

let’s feel the pulse of the street

 

Your

boom box fills the air

your tunes so debonair

you got style

the cheerful sounds make people smile everywhere

 

My

heart goes to the sky

whenever you go by

it’s your way

your striding sings a song that I can’t deny

 

O

each morning I see you

Your tunes are in the air

bright horns everywhere

you even make the walkways glad

 

Our

lives were meant to meet

like grid lines on the street

sidewalk grooves

the intersecting rhythms we would repeat

as ev’ry day we would meet

we’ve got the pulse of the street

let’s join as one heart and beat

CONNECT with Michael Arnowitt

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Big Round Records is dedicated to presenting world-class musicians doing what they do best: smash the walls of genre and create groundbreaking new sounds while keeping one foot firmly rooted in tradition. Overdriven bassoons, orchestra-backed swing groups, blues-inflected Zydeco, outlandish arrangements of Disney songs, and modern-protest tunes is just a small slice of what you'll hear on our releases, which feature some of today's most forward-thinking and respected artists such as John Hall (Orleans), Steve Gadd, Andy Jaffe, Eddie Gomez, Tony Oxley, Charlie Barnett, Richard Stoltzman, Tony Clef, Mika Yoshida, and many more. Out of the box? With Big Round, there is no box.

 

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