Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Two Days with Bill Dobbins: Things Are Looking Up

Those of us who dragged through this searing July in Columbus rebounded at month's end, refreshed by the heart-lifting, musical two-day visit of jazz pianist and arranger, Bill Dobbins.

Bill Dobbins at the Bungalow Jazz keyboard.
Dobbins is by title Professor of Jazz Studies and Contemporary Media at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York where he has worked twice: from 1973-'94, and again from 2002 upon returning from eight years in Cologne, Germany where he directed the WDR Big Band. As a performer, as an arranger, and as a band leader, Dobbins has probably worked with more contemporary jazz artists than not, as his Eastman bio suggests.

When he comes to Columbus—it's getting to be an annual affair—Dobbins gives an intimate, theme-based piano trio performance at the Bungalow Jazz series, and is guest artist with Vaughn Wiester's Famous Jazz Orchestra. Here he's Bill, with a friendly twinkle in his eye and a gracious willingness to sit down with any of his many fans who wants to talk—especially if there's an anecdote to share about high school days in Akron, or someone extends one of his early vinyl records for an autograph.

Dobbins is connected to Columbus through Vaughn Wiester and his Famous Jazz Orchestra, a twenty-one piece big band. (Disclosure: Wiester—"weester"—is this writer's brother.) Wiester is a trombonist and arranger well-known in Ohio and adjoining states; he is deeply studied in big band literature and is a passionate collector of orchestral scores. He is acquainted with many other eminent arrangers, such as Bill Holman, Slide Hampton, and Med Flory—people who arranged music for the likes of Count Basie, Woody Herman, Maynard Ferguson, and Frank Sinatra. When possible, Wiester commissions new arrangements from these writers. 
Dobbins, Wiester, and fan, Bill Miller

Famous Jazz plays once a week with no rehearsals. The band's composed of amateur musicians; music students and educators from public schools, colleges, and universities; and several professionals. The common denominator is that each member is a sight-reading ace who's happy to receive ten dollars for the evening's fun. Part of the fun is playing music that Bill Dobbins wrote exclusively for them. It's an experience few musicians working outside a professional environment in New York or Los Angeles will ever have. 

Wiester has commissioned Dobbins to arrange for FJO two classics of the Bill Evan piano trios, 1961's Waltz for Debby and 1966's Turn Out the Stars, both works of lyrical emotion expressed through long, light lines. I wondered how such gem-like works could bear the weighty presence of a big band. Gerry Mulligan's Rocker, another commission, is well-known from the Miles Davis Birth of the Cool recordings (1950), basics of the jazz canon. Dobbins has also arranged Antonio Carlos Jobim's delicate bossa nova, Passarim, for Wiester.
Vaughn Wiester's Famous Jazz Orchestra, early July, 2012

Dobbins' arrangements reflect his view that the rise of ego has done the world no good, for he keeps a low profile in his writing. He does not repossess the tunes he touches; he does not render them novel, "new," or "updated." He explained that he adheres to basic harmonies, embellishing them and coloring them in a personal manner, but trying to keep such interpretation within the spirits of the originals. 

It's not only the original harmonies that Dobbins tries to remain true to when he arranges, but the weights and the spirits of the works as well. He follows closely the musical movement of Turn Out the Stars, and he follows the emotional movement just as accurately. Much of the success is in his choice of voicings as he expands a piano trio into music for twenty-one pieces, twelve of them brass. The addition of musical lines neither adds excess bulk nor blurs any sound. What Dobbins adds is both obvious and transparent at the same time. His arrangement is so thoroughly informed by knowledge of the original and by concern for the composer's purposes that his expansions and elaborations fit seamlessly. As a result, it  hardly seems that he has arranged, but more like he collaborated with the composer. Is this what Evans would have written, had it occurred to him to write Turn Out the Stars for an expanded big band? An impossibility of course; but in the way that fiction has of revealing truth through possibilities, I'd say, Yes.

You can hear full performances of Dobbins' arrangements of Turn Out the Stars and Rocker played by the Famous Jazz Orchestra by clicking on these title links.

As a tot, Dobbins often stayed with an aunt who owned a piano. His Pentecostal preacher father and his mother would go on the road for long periods, leaving him not merely to his fascination with the music he heard, but successfully to apply his own hands to the keys when he could barely balance on the stool. When he was eleven, Dobbins was thunderstruck upon hearing George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue on the radio. He walked downtown the next day to buy the sheet music, and memorized the whole piece over a weekend. His family supported his passion and talent for music, but he and his father "locked horns," as he calls it, when it came to his first love, jazz.

It's not as if the world made it easy to study jazz in the late 1960s anyway. At Kent State University—as in nearly every music department nationwide—there was contempt rather than curriculum for jazz. Dobbins considers this to have been his good fortune. He studied composition with Fred Coulter, whose pedagogy was deep study of classical Western composers by means of writing compositions "in the style of" the greats he would specify, from Bach through Berg.

The traditions and basic musical language Dobbins learned so thoroughly in this manner he considers fundamental to jazz, and regrets greatly that so few young musicians trouble to learn it. He is firm in asserting that, "There's nothing in jazz that didn't exist before it. Look at Bach's use of syncopation." Thus, Dobbins sees jazz as evolutionary rather than innovative in nature, having emerged organically as something unique—a fusion of local music and African—wherever the slave trade went: to Brazil, Cuba, or Louisiana.

Dobbins and pianist Abhik Mazumder before a lesson
"It's a new Dark Age for music," Dobbins believes. Both jazz and classical music are being forced underground, since young people learn too little to perpetuate the accumulated culture of the past. Innovation is valued too highly over preservation, which he connects to discovery, exploration, and community—that is, to qualities not based in ego. Such an idea connects directly to Dobbins' brilliance as an arranger whose discernible presence in the music of a predecessor is suffused with exquisite understanding of the methods and the emotional scope of the composer's work.

Dobbins' prizing of community over ego and careerism is exemplified by the story he loves about a big break during college days. He had a jazz band that played weekly off-campus at Eddie's Stag Bar. Bill Dobbins named the band after himself, not so much as an act of ego as one of responsibility. He was careful to avoid any possible link between the good name of Kent State University with a bar band.

For an independent band of collegians to be invited to the 1970 Montreux (Switzerland) Jazz Festival was amazing; for them to be invited not only to play, but then to backup legendary trumpeter Art Farmer was even more amazing. Of course they would go.

But it takes a lot of money to fly a band of around fifteen people from Ohio to Switzerland. Kent State refused to have anything to do with it and wouldn't find a penny for them. When the patrons of Eddie's Stag Bar learned of this outrage, they began their own collection and ultimately raised the cash for the students to make the trip. Lesson for Dobbins: The people who love the music will do the job; don't look to institutions. "It was the power of community."

Dobbins recollects, too, his first period at Eastman, 1973-'94, when he was under the pressure of building a dossier of performances and writing on a tenure-timetable. New, elite academic artists face the task of getting famous when opportunities for their work to be heard are few, and even then audiences are sparse. Artistic life under these circumstances is struggle.

But in 1995 Dobbins accepted an invitation to become the principal director of the WDR Big Band in Cologne, Germany, where he and his wife remained for eight years. "Within four months, I was on national television!" he still marvels. With no particular effort from him, the band leader, their concert hall was filled to its twenty-five-hundred capacity for every program. 

Jim Rupp
His applause for the strong cultural connection Germans have to music carries with it grief for the lack of same in the U.S. In other countries, audiences sometimes sing along with music they know at choral concerts. Where Americans would be very uncomfortable with this, finding it rowdy or inappropriate, we really have very little widely shared musical literature. The hymns on which Bach based some of his cantatas are still sung in German churches today. "When we hear Bach, we can't know any of that," he says. "For most of us, it's simply old, academic stuff."

The night before his guest appearance with Famous Jazz, Dobbins performed a Gershwin program at Becky Ogden's Bungalow Jazz House Concerts (where we recently reviewed Ron Busch and Jack Schantz). Developed as a solo concert at Eastman last spring, here Dobbins performed it with bassist Andy Woodson and drummer Jim Rupp.

The lesser-known verses of Gershwin's songs are as interesting to Dobbins as the famous choruses, and he introduced several tunes with recitations of verses. Gershwin's lyrics, he assured me, are always in his head when he plays the music. I was happy to hear this, since I know this music as song, inseparable from words. Being so, the performances were redolent of the sense of the song played. In "How Long Has This Been Going On," I found Dobbins' solo introduction—the first two-and-a-half minutes of verse, chorus and bridge—especially poignant. The lyrics are these:

As a tot, when I trotted in my little velvet panties,
I was kissed by my sisters, my cousins and my aunties.
Sad to tell, it was hell, an inferno worse than Dante's.
So my dear I swore,
"Never, never more!"
On my list, I insisted that kissing must be crossed out.
Now, I find I was blind, and oh my! how I lost out!

I could cry salty tears; 
Where have I been all these years?
Little Wow, tell me now:
How long has this been going on?

There were chills up my spine,
And some thrills I can't define.
Listen sweet, I repeat:
How long has this been going on?

Oh, I feel that I could melt:
Into Heaven I'm hurled!
I know how Columbus felt,
Finding another world,

Kiss me once, then once, more.
What a dunce I was before. 
What a break! For Heaven's sake!
How long has this been going on?

Bill Dobbins
Ira Gershwin's verse presents a silly image of the smitten man as a baby discovering his sexuality in confusion and denial. What follows, in compact lines chopped by internal rhyme, are expressions of the undeniable sensual daze when he finally falls from the fog into the flames. And Dobbins captures every detail of emotion, latent and expressed, in that brief statement, before the tune takes shape in the trio performance. The verse is played skippingly, yet not without ironic adult awareness: The minor chords on "Dear" and "more" hit like the sensation of chewing on cracked teeth, coming as painful surprises. During the bridge, when the lover knows how Columbus felt in discovery, we understand by the dissonance that it's with mixed emotions, not entirely comfortable. Dobbins beautifully controls tempo, slightly rushing and then dragging for emotional effect, slowing considerably once he gets to the chorus, where the jokes of the verse are dropped and the ecstatic pain of discovery begins.

Listen to Dobbins' opening of "How Long Has This Been Going On?" HERE

Similarly, in the piano statement of "Soon," opened here by Dobbins' remarks, he sets a tune with ebullient, hopeful lyrics in among some unexpectedly dark harmonies. He doesn't do so with any irony, but with a rich, suave tenderness. He suffuses his interpretation with a felt understanding of the inevitable hurt in hope, of the difficult patience of yearning, of the inherent fragility of romantic beginnings. I sing the lyrics in my head whenever I hear this tune, but Dobbins' voiceless arrangement fills it with meaning I'm not sure that a vocalist could attain—with the rich, exotic colors that give an allure more majestic than domestic. The "little ship" is a luxury liner with a pensive and passionate captain, afloat on a sea of deep, complex undercurrents. Ira's words were never meant to stand alone, but the tune, in Dobbins' hands, is far from wordless.

Soon, my dear, you'll never be lonely,

Soon, you'll find I live for you only.

When I'm with you who cares what time it is

Or what the place or what the climate is?

Oh soon, our little ship will come sailing
Home through every storm, never failing,
The day you're mine this world will be in tune,
Let's make that day come soon.

You can listen to this opening of "Soon" HERE.

Andy Woodson
Dobbins goes to town with Woodson and Rupp on "The Man I Love." He sets it to a Latin rhythm; but even more interesting is that he prefaces it with "Blue Lullaby," also known as "Prelude No. 2."  Recognizing harmonic kinship, he melds the two. 

The entire performance will play when you press the link, featuring fantastic playing and a lot of fun once "The Man I Love" gets established. Solos by Woodson and Rupp are fast-paced and thrill-packed. Again, though, Dobbins responds to the mood of the "Blue Lullaby" when he opens, sweet and simple in the right hand, with thunder rolling in from the left. The melody sounds like a plain, bluesy folk tune, but this baby's sleeping through tough times. The bridge features some moderate-tempo ragtime, but not too buoyant; its return to the chorus produces the piquant blend of moods that seems to be a Dobbins specialty.
There's a thirty-second adjustment of keys and motif; and by the time he's turned us around, Woodson and Rupp are in—all three are in, playing "The Man I Love." Dobbins doesn't rush it into the heady romp it becomes, though. He retains in the harmonies the dark underpinning of doubt: "Some day he'll come along,/The man I love.../And when he comes my way/ I'll do my best to make him stay." Nothing's given.

Enjoy the trio performance of "The Man I Love" HERE.

At the end of the first set, Woodson and Rupp sat out while Dobbins played his solo arrangement of "Rhapsody in Blue." Of course we were all thrilled: It's bound to be the highlight of any Gershwin piano program. Any music is hair-raising when I'm seated a yard from the open piano, feeling in my chest cavity the resonance of every hammer on string. But to have that privileged position for this performance was the more extraordinary since I felt that I'd never really heard this "familiar" music before then. For instance, the stride elements that I commented on to Dobbins, had always been there, but in the orchestra, he explained. Placed in the piano, though, I heard them laid bare so their contextual significance leapt out. The structural clarity of the "Rhapsody in Blue" piano arrangement makes its jazz elements particularly vivid, pared away from orchestral grandeur. Dobbins had written the arrangement originally for a Hindemith symposium, in acknowledgement of the composer's awareness of jazz. It's an excellent way to make the point.

HERE is Bill Dobbins playing his arrangement for solo piano of George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue."  

Dobbins told me that we can expect him back in Columbus next summer, probably again on the last Sunday and Monday of July for gigs at the Bungalow House and with Famous Jazz Orchestra. With each return there is greater excitement for his visits, across a broader spectrum of listeners. Last year he did an Ellington/Strayhorn concert, and Gershwin this year. He's in the process of researching and writing a book on Bill Holman, whom he is interviewing over time. Whatever he brings us will be beautiful and will make us think again about inherited and shared music. Be sure to keep and eye on the websites linked above for dates.

If you come, you'll see his glow and his smile of satisfaction at the end of every tune he plays. Even—or, especially—after one as demanding as "Rhapsody in Blue," he can barely be said to rise from the bench because he springs from it, raising his left hand to his right shoulder. I asked if his shoulder hurt and he was surprised by the question, having been unaware of the habit. Perhaps it's an anchoring gesture, a way to be sure he doesn't float off. For, by the end of a performance, he is the opposite of exhausted: He looks and sounds as if he has been administered the finest, most bracing tonic. His connection with keyboard and music is not the sort that pulls any power from him, but returns even more than he puts into the energy loop. He shares accumulated surplus energy with his audience the way a happy child offers slices of birthday cake.

Here's a bonus track, the Bill Dobbins Trio at Bungalow House Jazz Concerts on July 29, 2012, playing George Gershwin's "S' Wonderful," bossa style.

With many thanks to Tom Johnson for his recordings from Vaughn Wiester's Famous Jazz Orchestra on Monday, July 30, 2012: FJO performing Dobbins arrangements of "Turn Out the Stars" and "Rocker;" the Bill Dobbins Trio performing "Blue Lullaby/The Man I Love." Other recordings, and photographs are my own, with thanks to Becky Ogden and Bungalow Jazz House Concerts for making them possible.

Tenor soloist on "Turn Out the Stars" is Bryan Olsheski, for whom Dobbins wrote the part.
Soloists on "Rocker" are Jim Powell, trumpet; Michael Cox, alto sax; Bob LeBeau, baritone sax. Drummer on "Rocker" is Steve Schaar. Dobbins is pianist on both "Turn Out the Stars" and "Rocker."

Personnel for FJO on July 30, 2012: Saxes: Kent Englehardt, Michael Cox (altos); Matt Wagner, Alex Burgoyne (tenors); Bob LeBeau (bari). Trumpets: Erik Gimbel (lead); Larry Everhart, Jim Powell, Bob Larson, Phil Winnard. Trombones: Ryan Hamilton (lead); Matt Ellis, John Hall, Bill England (bass), Tony Zilincik (tuba). French horns: Scott Strohm, John Busic. Guitar: Aaron Quinn. Bass: Terry Douds. Piano: Jim Luellen. Drums: Jim Leslie. Guest (piano) Bill Dobbins. Guests with Dobbins Trio: Andy Woodson (bass), Jim Rupp (drums). Leader, solo trombone, cowbell: Vaughn Wiester.

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