The idea of An AMERICAN DIARY sprung from my memories of youth. There were two camps in my family, the jazzzers and the longhairs. Picture a very crowded tenement, three railroad rooms in the Bronx filled with my father, his brother, out of work tapdancers billed in vaudeville as ‘Moe’ and ‘Boe’, and my aunts and uncles who were struggling singers, musicians and composers. One grandfather played jazz guitar and another blared opera and classics on his radio to ward off the dreaded ‘jazz’ coming from the living room. Since we’re from Italian-Jewish ancestry, there was an extra spicy heat in our debates as to what was considered ‘high’ and ‘low’ art. So my split personality began early, not just musically but culturally, as well. All through the ‘40’s it was Puccini vs. Hot Club of France, and Caruso vs. Ol’Blue Eyes. Mateo dragged me to the opera while my Dad planned the usual jaunt to catch one of the big bands on Broadway. It was an incredible time!
My initial concept for this album was to interpret some pieces by Puccini, since his melodic and harmonic concept alway thrilled me. But that work was slow and daunting. I discovered once I began a piece that it was hard to find a ‘jumbping-off’ place for inprovisaton. Also the melodies tended to sould too sweet, maybe even corny, for the quartet I’d imagined. Then, browsing through my collection, I discovered a record of a piano sonata by Copland written in 1927. I was especially taken by the Vivace movement. At a slower tempo, I thought it sounded like what Monk would write 25 years later. So I decided to research works by other American composers not usually covered in the jazz scene.
On An AMERICAN DIARY, Mike Mainieri and colleagues, saxophonist Joe Lovano, bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Peter Erskine, claim common cause with the modernist lineage of 20th Century American composers. The acoustic quartet present a virtual floating landscape of American Classical Music spanning over a century of musical influence. Constructing a patchwork of jazz compositions built upon the works of Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein, John Cage, Aaron Copland, Charles Ives, Roger Sessions, William Grant Still, and Frank Zappa, An AMERICAN DIARY is a portrait of our great musical heritage.
Characteristically ‘American’, these inspiring masters were all uncompromising individualists, innovators, and occacionaly, outright renegades. Similarly, Mainieri, Lovano, Gomez and Erskine, legendary in their own right, have pioneered countless contributions to the jazz world, and beyond, both as individual artists and frequent collaborators. Collectively represented in this work, An AMERICAN DIARY reveals a panaramic view of the American spirit and vast musical life. From turn-of-the-century town-meetings, holiday picnics and marching bands, to legitimate concerts and orchestral commissions; from Broadway shows, film productions, and rock extravaganzas to Ceorge Cershwin, John Coltrane, the beat of New Orleans, and Bo Diddley––all is embodied in the An AMERICAN DIARY picture. An all embracing, investigative spirit endures as this ground-breaking collaboration accepts no barrieris when adapting the works they respect to their own interpretations.
Somewhere, the yearning finale of Bernstein’s West Side Story, is reharmonized with a waltrz rhythm, while the chameleon-esque, master saxophonist Lovano limpidly searches for "a place for us." Similarly, Zappa’s King Kong begs to be opened up and blown on, though rather than Kong’s beastliness, the band examines the pores and fissures of what might be the tragic ape’s quasi-human psyche. Gomez performs remakably playing the head of Copland’s Piano Sonata in unison with Mainieri. Mainieri arranges the first movement of Sessions’ mournful Piano Sonata No 1 beautifully for alto clarinet, arco bass, bass, concert maribas and drums. His vibes partake of haunting distendednesss from a pedal he invented that bends and delays notes, with Lovano’s spectral grace in response.
Town Meeting, Mainieri’s own comoposition, alludes to convening villagers with church bells, an Appalachian melody and an expansive free section that recalls the squabbling that often ensues, followed by a theme which settles down the townsfolk, and a coda that sends them swinging merrily out the door. Mainieri extracts the melody from Barber’s 1932 Overture To The School For Scandal and writes a blowing section which on cue leads the soloist back to the piece’s bridge. Lovano’s Hudson River Valley is an ‘uptown meeting’ as a meandering, deep tenor, vibes, spry bass and emphatic drums discourse with the intimacy of a family in long-running and ever enjoyable argument. William Grant Still’s Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child elicits a Lovano quote of Summertime and themes from Still’s own African-American background. In a distinctive way, drummer Erskine places mid-tempo Music Of My People at the cross-roads of black-boogie and American minimalisim. Gomez opens the traditional Scottish melody In The Gloaming by bowing; Mainieri plays piano while Lovano roams the crepuscular mood and Erskine sparingly applies brushes to cymbals. Out of The Cage recalls that iconoclast’s preparded piano miniatures more than it resembles his later aleatory works. In The Universe of Ives is an astounding reconception of Ives’ impossible, and of course unfinished work, Universe Symphony, deserving comment directly from the man who dared to confront its cosmic metapghor. Lovano’s clairinet loosly quotes the trumpet part of Ives’ masterpiece The Unanswered Question.
Jazz and contemporaty composition draw toegether on An AMERICAN DIARY as if personal the freedoms championed by improvisation were longing for the structural rigors afforded by fixed form. Whereas the wedding of these presumably opposing strains is rather one of thorny love, the provocative entries in An AMERCICAN DIARY expertly advance the strongest, most attractive attributes of both lines.