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Composer/Arranger Mica Bethea Releases Stage ‘n Studio -- Unique Concept Double-disc Big Band Album


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Not only is Mica a top notch arranger for pieces by well-known composers such as Herbie Hancock, Harold Arlen and George Gershwin, but his original compositions are often better than the aforementioned better known composers.” -- Jazz Music Archives
Mica Bethea’s music isn’t easy to categorize. He composes and arranges charts for big bands, but he’s unlike any other artist working in the genre. Stage 'N Studio is his second CD as a leader. The release is a two-disc set, and, staying true to his own muse, he decided to record the music twice, first in the studio and then in live performance at the University of North Florida, his alma mater.

Bethea is an amazing young man. He was a student in 2005, driving back to school in Jacksonville after a visit to his family in Daytona, when a big rig going 85 miles plowed into his car that was stopped in traffic. The accident left him a quadriplegic. We can never prepare ourselves for the 1001 shocks the flesh is heir to, or really know how we’ll react when faced with a dire situation, but Mica Bethea has the resiliency and fortitude that comes from his keen intellect and passion for music that enabled him to put his life back together. He returned to school after three years, completed his Bachelor’s Degree, went on to earn a Master’s Degree, and then embarked on a career in music.

Music has always been a part of Bethea’s life. Both his parents were musicians. His mother sang and played piano, and his father played trumpet and piano, and he was also a radio disc jockey for a while in the 1970s. Bethea had a sophisticated ear and loved jazz from an early age. He studied saxophone in the sixth grade and then taught himself piano. By the time he got to high school he was already well-versed in music theory and could pick up just about any instrument and play it. After graduating, he attended the University of North Florida where he studied music with first-rate teachers like Bunky Green and Bill Prince.

After the accident, he returned to school and, although he could no longer play an instrument, he focused on arranging and composition. Bethea says, “I use Finale, the music notation software, for my compositions and arrangements. I lay down my own score, and there are excellent libraries of midi- tracks that I make use of. Although it can take hours to compose on the computer where it would take minutes to accomplish the same tasks on the piano, at least I can play back and hear the music. Life gives you challenges that you just have to work with to move forward.”

His father introduced Bethea to a variety of artists and musical styles, and those wide-ranging musical influences are reflected in Bethea’s compositions. Because his father played the trumpet and loved Maynard Ferguson’s music, Bethea’s first CD was heavily influenced by a Ferguson album called Chameleon. Bethea has been particularly drawn to big band music and cites Bob Brookmeyer, Maria Schneider, and Gil Evans as major influences. According to Bethea, “My mind is always racing, jumping from one idea to the next. I find that music actually helps me focus. But I like to change things up. I don’t like to sit on the same chord too long, and if I write a swing tune, the next one will have to be something different. I like to use a wide palette of musical colors to portray just what I’m feeling.”

Although Jacksonville is not as large an urban area as New York or Chicago, the university draws a lot of talented musicians to the region, and Bethea knows just about all of them. He was able to enlist a group of topnotch players who could superbly execute Bethea’s complex arrangements that span multiple styles, including big band swing, funk, fusion, and Latin.

Bethea is a very sensitive, intuitive person who derives his inspiration from the emotive power of a piece of music; however, he’s very thoughtful about how he wants it arranged. Because he can play just about every instrument in a big band and he knows the capabilities of each player individually, he writes each part specifically for that player to maximize the effect he wants to achieve. Bethea knows how to create a tight, intricate arrangement that gives enough space for a soloist to improvise and make the music soar.

Bethea composed four of the tunes on these discs, and the remainder are more familiar numbers from composers like Harold Arlen, George Gershwin, Herbie Hancock, and John Klemmer. The sources of his inspiration can be truly idiosyncratic, as in “Frahm Out Of Nowhere,” which he wrote to emulate the feeling of a car chase video game with the music careening like a car going around a track and achieving different levels of intensity. He employed a musical quote from Joel Frahm that he played on “Round Midnight” on a Brad Mehldau CD, and hence the name of the tune. Bethea also admires Thad Jones and was inspired to write “Jonesin’ For Thad” after listening to several of Jones’ CDs. According to Bethea, “I wanted to write something in Jones’ style but I was suffering from writer’s block. But one night I was in bed, writing bass lines on an iPhone app, when the groove finally came to me. Once I had the basics, everything just fell into place.”

While earning his Master’s degree in Jazz, Bethea focused on all the different styles that could be employed in a big band setting, and he wanted to experiment recording in two very different settings, that is, in the studio and live on stage. Bethea relates, “This was a very interesting experiment. On the studio CD, I could control the environment and get exactly the sounds I wanted. There’s a very pleasing almost pristine quality to it. But on the live performance, you can hear that the musicians are more relaxed and stretch out more. The sound isn’t as clean, but that’s more than made up for by the vitality of the performance.”

The writing on Stage 'N Studio is rich and colorful. Bethea’s restless imagination takes you down unexpected paths where surprises await and never disappoint. This project is an exciting new addition to the ensemble jazz genre for our modern times.

Stage 'N Studio is available at Amazon, iTunes and CD Baby.

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