I find performing in big bands to be incredibly enjoyable experiences and doing so often provides a boost of creative energy to my standard compositional activities. Just over a week ago I had the good fortune to play lead alto in a talented faculty jazz band as part of teaching a summer music camp. The next day I found myself humming a fragment of a tune that was not in the previous night's book. This is how a composition usually starts for me - a vague sonic snapshot that comes into focus layer by layer as I work the material at the piano.

As I began the process of building this tune, I realized a few peculiar characteristics. Although it's a common twelve-bar blues in F with some colorful harmonic modifications, (1) the melody is rather angular and chromatic and (2) each grouping of four bars contains at least one 3/4 measure.

Barstow head.jpg

Here's the kicker: when I first conceived the tune it was a blistering bop-blues at around quarter = 192/200 but yesterday I slowed it down to quarter = 136, with a feel and tempo not unlike "Teenie's Blues" from Oliver Nelson's album The Blues and the Abstract Truth . I think I prefer the melody at this tempo. It allows the listener time to process the meter shifts. I am reminded of how Duke Ellington used to play new compositions at multiple and varied tempi in a quest to find the perfect groove. You wrote a ballad? Try it as an up-tempo number. You wrote a fast swing? Try it as a mid-tempo number or slow dance tune.

I think this 12-bar melody has potential. Or I've just been listening to too much Don Ellis lately.

Ultimately I want the head to become a part of a much larger jazz band composition inspired by the opening pages of Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas . To that end the working title is "Journey Through Barstow Bat Country." It's a psychoblues, a blues of distorted reality. I hope to complete the chart by the end of the calendar year, but not until I have finished some commissions on my work bench.