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John Daversa: Kaleidoscope Eyes


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Internationally renowned performer, composer, arranger, band leader, teacher; John Daversa's talents include these among many others. His in demand skills as a world-class trumpet player have led him to perform on such prestigious stages as the Monterey Jazz, Montreal Jazz and Montreux Festivals, on such well known American programs as Late Nite with David Letterman and The Oprah Winfrey Show and with incredible performers such as Fiona Apple, Michael Buble, Dori Caymmi and The Yellowjackets. In addition to this impressive list, Daversa recently became Department Chair of Studio Music and Jazz at the Frost School of Music, University of Miami.

With this move came new, exciting opportunities for Daversa and his Progressive Big and Small Bands. Already beloved in L.A. from his longtime residency at the Baked Potato, the John Daversa Progressive Big Band has been reincarnated in New York featuring such contemporary icons as Ben Wendel and Donny McCaslin, as well as legends like Marvin Stamm, and his small band has featured the likes of David Binney and Adam Rogers. It is no surprise that amongst all these exciting changes, John became inspired to put together a new record of big band music that features the music of The Beatles. His fearless creativity and one of a kind spirit make his unique take on the classic repertoire one of the new year's most exciting projects.

All About Jazz: What inspired this new project?

John Daversa: Well, so many things. The first seed of it was a friend of mine, who has been a fan of the big band for a long time, he used to come down to the Baked Potato when we played once a month, he and his business partner bought the licenses for a few of the early Beatles tunes, and he called me up and said "Hey John, can you write an arrangement of one of these Beatles tunes? I would love to place one of these songs in television or film." I said "Well, I'd love to, but I'd want to do it in my own way," and he said "Yeah, of course! I'd want you to do it your way," and I started thinking: well, how much fun would it be to do a full record of Beatles songs re-imagined in our band's style and personality.? I got excited about that and so the seed of the idea was there.

It led me to think, too, that when our first record, Junkwagon (BFM Jazz 2011) went out and no one really knew my name outside of Los Angeles and so it went out to all the reviewers, all the magazines and all the newspapers and probably one percent of those people actually picked it up and were interested in actually listening to it. Those on percent really loved it, but we weren't getting to everybody. then the second record came out, Artful Joy (BFM Jazz 2012), and it went out to all the same people and maybe ten percent of the people listened to that because they had heard the good news about the first one, and it made it into Downbeat, JazzTimes, Jazziz and all those, "Jazzy" places, and I thought well maybe now is a good time to combine forces with people that have been in the jazz world who have started to hear about what we're doing with the big band and it might pique their curiosity even more if it's repertoire that we all love and grew up with: The Beatles' repertoire. It seemed like a good time to do that, too.

AAJ: I read in an interview that you didn't actually grow up with The Beatles, that their catalogue was something you started to check out later in life.

JD: Yeah, it's true, I really didn't know the full catalogue until I started researching and investigating for this project. I grew up with Earth, Wind & Fire and Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson and Chopin and Beethoven and Willie Nelson and The Beach Boys, and just about everybody else but the Beatles. They just weren't in my household as much. I mean, there's certain things that we all hear, but not the full catalogue. It was so much fun this past year, especially this summer when I had more time, I listened to all the records with headphones and really got into the sound design, and the lyrics! -Oh, John Lennon's lyrics are just devastatingly deep. Paul McCartney's melodies -it's just amazing music! I'm not saying anything that anybody doesn't know (laughs), but I was able to fall in love with it all on my own.

I also read every article and checked out every video interview I could find on YouTube, and I just had a lot of fun following their personalities and their musical tendencies. I was more interested in trying to understand how they wrote and how they viewed music and their integrity for the music that they were writing. I learned so much and I had so much fun understanding these four personalities and how that perfect storm of a less than ten year period was for them-to write all that music and perform it all in the way that it was. It was just a perfect happening.

AAJ: What was your first introduction to the band and how did it effect you?

JD: That's so difficult to say. Some of those Beatles songs are just omnipresent, so you hear some of them when you're not a year old and you don't know what it is. You hear songs like "Michelle" and "Yesterday" and "Eleanor Rigby" and the most popular ones that seem to be in the mainstream everywhere. I think my first hook to those songs were probably more of the Paul McCartney written tunes that have those melody driven lines like "Michelle," like "Eleanor Rigby" because as a musician I was always listening to the music before even the lyrics. Those are just great songs, just from a jazz player's perspective.

More recently I was able to really appreciate and understand both the music and the lyrics of John Lennon's tunes -the depth involved, and his whole essence of oneness really spoke to me as an adult. The same thing with George Harrison's music; I don't think I understood it fully when I was a child, but now it resonates in a very different way when I hear it. There's a certain sweetness and a certain gentle essence to his music that really speaks to me as well. They've all reached me at different times and in different ways as I've matured as a human being.

AAJ: How many of the songs did you have in mind at the outset of the project?

JD: I had 200 in mind! (laughs) I can jokingly say, but in an honest way too, that I could write, very easily 30 albums worth of these arrangements. The catalogue is immensely vast and rich. I tried to come up with a plan-maybe I'll have one song off every record, or at least have all the composers represented on the album, or find some sort of system that pulls all these songs together. I tried to do that initially and the reality of it was I would write one arrangement and, magically, I would just hear the next one in my head. I just knew what the next one needed to be creatively. I would go on to that one and the same process would happen until I came to the point when I had a full album's worth of material and I just had to stop. I very well could have gone on to do all 200, but at some point, as Miles Davis said to John Coltrane, you just have to take the horn out of your mouth (laughs) and stop.

I will say that I did initially try to choose songs, because most of the songs are going to be instrumental, I tried to choose ones that had very recognizable melodies. If the lyrics aren't there I think you really need strong representations of the melody to lead you through, and that gives me more license to play with the melodies and do different treatments of them. We do have the two vocal tunes that Renee Olstead is going to sing on that I was able to do some different things with.

AAJ: How does the spirit of the original songs inspire your own takes on them?

JD: It's the music and the lyrics. I would listen to the song over and over and over and over and over and over with headphones on and just absorb. I would almost passively just absorb what the song was, the lyrics and music. I wouldn't try and arrange the song until I had somehow forgotten about it. Then I would just imagine the song being played by the personalities in the big band and through my own musical personality and let it just filter through that lens on its own in a very organic way. Without trying to be fresh, without trying to be creative without trying to be imaginative it just happened very organically, just like I was writing my own music. There are times when you're writing the arrangements where you'll reference the originals and listen again just for certain moments of inspiration, but I think the idea is to really have it as fully, organically part of your own being, resonating as part of you and then let it come through you as naturally as possible.

AAJ: This is a very expanded version of your big band. Did you write these arrangements with these guys in mind?

JD: I always write with those personalities in my band in mind. As far as the expansion of the ensemble, I just started hearing other sounds. I tried to give myself the gift of not being limited to any particular instrumentation on this, so there are some things where I just heard a big huge, and a lot of low end, brass. I've got bass saxophone, I've got actually six saxophones on a couple things. Nancy Newman's going to come in and play bass saxophone, there are five trumpets, and there are four trombones including bass trombone, George Thatcher, and also tuba with Craig Gosnell. I just wanted that big low end-that massive, truck driver sound.

There were other things where I really started to hear strings on them, and I thought, wow, am I really going to add a string section to this? Just because of all the logistics involved with that, but I just had to. I was hearing it so strongly. I think six of the eight arrangements are with strings. I wrote them very integrally to all the pieces. I just conducted at University of Miami, Porgy and Bess, Gil Evans' scores that Miles Davis and he collaborated on, and Terance Blanchard came and played on that. Studying these scores and all the use of the alto flute and the bass clarinet, all the woodwinds and the tuba and the French horns, that was really inspiring me too, so a lot of the woodwind section has the alto flute and two bass clarinets and oboe and bassoon. I'm very spoiled to have some of the best doublers in the world in my band in John Yoakum and Bob Carr and Phil Feather, so I was able to utilize their specialties as well.

Even the regular members of the band, I certainly hear Gene Coye interpreting some of the arrangements, I hear Jerry Watts interpreting things in a certain way. You kind of cater to those voices, those personalities, as well as the full vocal chorus on this too. On "Here Comes the Sun" I needed a full chorus to come in and sing the bridges, because it just made so much sense, and I even put it in the key of B because the earth resonates at a low frequency, at the pitch of a B, so I could have a sun gong playing throughout the whole thing. There are reasons for everything being there.

AAJ: What did you learn from doing this project? What did you take away from everything as a whole?

JD: Well, I learned that whatever you can dream up you can do, just in the putting together of this project. The people that have helped me along the way to make this happen-it's been really special, not to mention all the pledgers that have pledged their hard earned money to make sure that this project happens and all the musicians that are coming together to make this happen. Every arrangement of is like a baby of yours, the whole project is like a baby and whenever you have a child you learn so much about yourself along the way, so it's no different than that.

There are so many devout Beatles fans out there that I'm getting to meet, and that's kind of fun, too. I think overall, talking this through out loud, I think the most amazing thing is how music pulls people together and how healing it can be. It's such a soulful, therapeutic, cathartic experience and I think that's why we all give it so much importance in our lives. It's really humbling and an incredible experience to be a part of it.

AAJ: I understand you're partnering with save the music for this project.

JD: Well, that was something I wanted to do because so many people are donating to this project, and I thought it would be very appropriate to be able to donate to another worthy cause through the same project. We all know music education, I'll just speak about the States, is something that's been de-prioritized more and more over the past couple of decades. The arts are something that really need our attention and our focus, because they are what give us our culture and our humanity as we grow up to be adults. The arts are half of our existence: it's art and expression and being able to communicate with each other and with the world. I feel so strongly about supporting the arts, even in early childhood and through school. It's such an important thing, so it's a way we can give back to that.

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