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Take Five with Jennifer Bellor

Jennifer Bellor By

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About Jennifer Bellor:
Las Vegas-based composer Jennifer Bellor blends contemporary jazz, classical, and popular styles. Her works have been performed by Washington National Opera, Seattle Women's Jazz Orchestra, American Composers Orchestra, Washington National Opera, Eastman New Jazz Ensemble, UNLV Jazz Ensemble, and many others in the United States and abroad. She earned a 2013 DownBeat Award for her composition "Midnight Swim" for big band in the original composition/orchestrated work category at the graduate college level. Her composition Noir won the 2nd Annual Seattle Women's Jazz Orchestra composition contest, and was performed in Seattle in November 2014, featuring Grace Kelly on alto saxophone. Judges considered her piece "really beautiful and haunting," and "reminiscent of Ornette's collaboration with Howard Shore for the film Naked Lunch."

Recent performances include a premiere of Bordello Nights in France at the Festival des Anches d'Azur in La Croix Valmer by the UNLV Wind Orchestra featuring jazz saxophonists Eric Marienthal and Colin Gordon, pianist Mitch Forman, bassist Kevin Axt, and drummer Bernie Dresel. Jennifer's debut album Stay released August 10th, 2016 blends jazz, classical and rock styles. One of her tracks, "Chase the Stars," features Las Vegas-based rapper Rasar Amani. She presented music from the album along with premieres at her CD release party at the Bop Shop August 21st in Rochester, NY featuring Colin Gordon (soprano sax), Julian Garvue and Andrew Links (piano/keyboard), Tyrone Allen (electric bass) and Aaron Staebell (drums). F

Jennifer earned a PhD in music composition at Eastman School of Music, a Master of Music degree in composition at Syracuse University, and a Bachelor of Arts degree in music at Cornell University. She is currently Visiting Lecturer at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where she teaches courses in music composition and theory.

Instrument(s):
Composer

Teachers and/or influences?
Before I talk about who influenced me to start writing jazz, I first need to share specific memories I have with mentors pre-college who influenced me to go this direction. I was classically trained on the violin since I was three, starting out with the Suzuki method under my private teacher Connie Murray. I had so much fun learning the tunes by rote, and when I was by myself in the house practicing, I would start to create new melodies on the violin. My private lessons in piano at age 6 with Avril Potter were classical, but I still fondly remember her assigning me Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag," and she didn't mind when I would bring in sheet music from Disney tunes or a songbook.

In Junior High as I was playing the French Horn in the ensembles, my band teacher Dave Alderson asked me to play horn in the jazz band. There, I had so much fun playing tunes that were outside of the typical junior high band music. In High school, my band teacher, Jonathan Hunkins, needed a pianist in the jazz ensemble. I didn't know if I would be the right fit, since I was a classical pianist, but he still gave me the encouragement and I quickly picked up the music. My junior year, I was unable to audition for the All-County show choir, since I was away for the All Eastern Conference on violin, so he encouraged me to send in an audition tape on jazz piano for the All County Jazz Band. I played "Christmas Time is Here" and won the audition. My favorite tune we performed was Chick Corea's "Spain," and recall really loving the harmonies in that chart. My senior year, Hunkins held auditions for a singer on "Stormy Weather." I wasn't going to audition knowing that I was classically-trained and might not have the right voice, but he encouraged me to just be myself and I also won that audition.

To be honest, I didn't know if I really liked jazz. I wasn't a huge fan of most of the music that we played in those ensembles, and most of the jazz I heard didn't really pique my interest. Then, Hunkins gave us the opportunity to go see Michael Brecker in concert up at Crane School of Music. I will never forget that concert; listening to his music—his playing, the harmonies and rhythm, crazy energy...that was when I realized that there were all sorts of music out there under the umbrella of the category jazz, and should start exploring. Jumping ahead now to my doctoral studies, the professor who influenced me the greatest amount to explore writing for jazz was Dave Rivello at the Eastman School of Music. It's funny how one random event could change one's life in a huge way: In 2009 I decided to join some of my new friends to check out a jazz band in East Rochester at this dive bar called the Village Rock. At the end of the night, Dave approached me, asked who I was and when I told him I was a composer in the classical department, he immediately asked me if I would be interested in writing a piece for the Eastman New Jazz Ensemble. He wanted to see what it would be like for a classical composer to write a big band piece. I jumped at the opportunity, and worked on my first big band piece "Overdrive." He and the ensemble were incredibly open to my music. Hearing the premiere of it was magical to me. I never felt so excited about a performance, and knew that I needed to keep writing music that incorporated jazz improvisation.

I knew I wanted to be a musician when...
I was three years old at the Massena Public library watching a Suzuki violin recital. After the performance, my Mom turned to me and asked if I would like to play violin like all of the kids I saw, and I immediately said, "yes." She took me by the hand and introduced me to the violinist, Connie Murray, who would be my first private teacher. It took me a long while to realize my passion and purpose in life was to be a composer, and all of my experiences performing has helped me write for so many ensembles. I remember my senior year of high school, that I had this recurring urge to create my own composition because I kept hearing this tune in my head. Finally, one weekend I had the courage to write it down, not on staff paper, but just on a regular notepad, jotting down note letters to remember the melody and chords. The piece was called "Awakening," and I was so proud to have written something to call my own. I didn't realize that it was possible to pursue composition as a career, so decided to continue the performance path in my undergraduate at Cornell. There, in the back of my mind my ultimate goal upon graduating would be to attend law school, but then I took one elective my junior year that changed my career path altogether: a group composition class with Roberto Sierra. That class was the first one when I would gladly spend countless nights staying up to write and meet deadlines. My vocal professor, Judith Kellock, knew of my budding interest in composition and my plan to apply to law school, suggesting I write a chamber opera based on a court room case. Working on that opera, was a major turning point. I knew that I would rather spend myriad hours composing versus having anything to do with law. I walked into my composition studio lesson with Steve Stucky my senior year, cried about how I didn't want to attend law school, and he encouraged me to apply to Syracuse University. Upon acceptance, I worked as hard as I could to learn everything about composition to build a portfolio for PhD applications.

Your sound and approach to music:
Well, I am obsessed with minor/major chords, Lydian, Dorian, and whole-tone scales, minor 9 chords with extensions, chromatic mediant relationships, and the pitch-class 0157 (I just love using motives that incorporate a minor second and perfect 5th). Rhythmically, I find myself wanting to use ornamentation along with bell-like meditative motions. When I write a new piece, the approach really depends upon the scope of it. If it's vocal, I'm very much influenced by the text I choose. All of my vocal compositions set traditional text by either Emily Bronte or John Donne. I'll spend a lot of time learning the poem, and then I'll create a melody followed by the form and then harmonies. For instrumental music, I might come up with a chord progression first, improvise at the piano every day until I can discover motives or a melody to use. I don't write from left to right; I spend a lot of time revising, tweaking, moving around sections, and listening to the piece in real time so it feels right to me.

Your dream band:
My dream band would comprise musicians that would be able to very successfully play not only pieces that involve jazz improvisation, but also play completely written-out compositions. My show would feature all of these musicians for certain pieces, and then other tunes will feature subsets. Voice—I would be the lead singer Soprano Saxophone/clarinet doubling: sax for improvisation and clarinet for written-out pieces String Quartet Vibraphone Percussion (gongs, bass drum, glockenspiel) Piano (someone who can improvise and also play all written-out pieces) Synth/keyboard player Electric guitar Electric bass Drums

Favorite venue:
The Bop Shop in Rochester, NY. When I expressed interest in having my CD release party there, they immediately found a date that worked, and were absolutely amazing with PR, email communication, etc. It's a really wonderful and intimate venue to have a show, and I enjoyed attending many jazz events held there.

Your favorite recording in your discography and why?
I'd have to say my favorite recording is of soprano saxophonist Colin Gordon performing "Familiar Stranger (remix)" from my album Stay. While I was composing music for my album, and working specifically on my composition "Familiar Stranger" for voice and ensemble, I decided I wanted a remix version that ornamented the vocal melody, making it for Colin to improvise on soprano sax. At the same time. I was also working on my wind orchestra composition "Bordello Nights" that features a jazz band. Colin was one of the featured soloists on the piece, as well, so I decided to incorporate the same melodic material from "Familiar Stranger (remix)" in the middle section of "Bordello Nights." When hearing him play "Familiar Stranger (remix)," I fondly remember all of our collaborations, as everything I write for soprano sax, I write for him.

The first Jazz album I bought was:
The Inner Mounting Flame by Mahavishnu Orchestra (does that count?). My prom date senior year of high school was a jazz/rock drummer and he introduced me to them. I fell in love with the music, and would listen to it while going on long runs.

What do you think is the most important thing you are contributing musically?
I write music that brings musicians from various backgrounds together, whether it be bringing together jazz and classical performers together in one piece, writing a jazz/classical piece that incorporates a rapper, or even just writing music that features dance or other artists. I often find in the conservatory setting, that many departments are isolated from each other, and unless a performer (i.e. trombonist or percussionist) is able to play in both classical standard and jazz ensembles, many musicians don't have the opportunity to meet each other, learn new perspectives and ideas that could enhance one's development as an artist. Regardless of the categories that are set up for us, music is music and we are all artists trying to communicate who we are with our listeners.

Did you know...
I was selected to be the Artist in Residence at the Neon Museum in Las Vegas April 23-24. There, I had the opportunity to work with the public on creating music on the spot in relation to the historical signs in the North Gallery. All ages—from toddler to Senior participated in my sessions. We began with a group exercise; I organized a composition and taught each small group a rhythm by rote. Then, I cued each group to play their pattern, adding ostinato layers that accompanied the composition. Following this performance, they all broke off into groups of 3-5 people and chose a sign to influence them to create a group improvisation. The session culminated with the group performances and then a performance of my composition "Moments Shared, Moments Lost" for clarinet, organ, and improvised drums. This was such an amazing and enlightening experience!

What is in the near future?
Following my CD-release show at the Bop Shop August 21st in Rochester, NY, I will be back in Las Vegas getting ready to teach my classes at UNLV, diving into new composition projects, and finding more performance opportunities for my band. I was commissioned by Adams State University music department to compose a new piece for chamber wind ensemble featuring vibraphone, which is due in September (ahh), and soon after, will be starting on a composition for flute choir commissioned by Sirroco Flutes of Las Vegas. At UNLV in September, I'll be recording my new song cycle "Songs in the Dark" for voice, piano synth, and electric bass, and then will also be premiering an arrangement of this at the N.E.O.N. Festival. The arrangement will feature the Brazilian-based MIVOS string quartet, vibraphone, electric bass, and me singing.

What's your greatest fear when you perform?
I never had a fear of performing until I started singing my own compositions. I think it's because I'm focused on making sure the composition goes well and at the same time, am overly critical of my own performance. A voice inside my head would whisper, "Something is going to go wrong; if you don't do this right, you are going to have an awful recording, etc." It took some advice from some of my closest friends to realize that fear is something that exists because we have no control over the future, and we should just be in the moment when performing and make the best of it. We should also practice with positive vibes as we prepare for the big show. Thinking back to moments when I loved singing on stage, I remember singing musical theatre in high school. Yes, I was nervous, but it was always the excitement of performing that outweighed any level of anxiety. One of my close singer friends suggested that I should memorize everything and prepare in the same way as if I were about to perform a scene. As I continue to perform, I take all of my friends' advice and channel those positive vibes because in that moment, we just need to make music and share who we are with our listeners.

What song would you like played at your funeral?
I never really thought about this until this question, and Billy Joel's "Goodnight My Angel" popped into my head. I have always loved that tune, and would love that sung along with a performance of Chick Corea's "Crystal Silence," Steve Swallow's "Falling Grace," and perhaps even Bjork's "Cosmogony" from her Biophilia album. Oh, and "Pure Imagination," as the paul bearers lead my casket out of the church.

If I could have dinner with anyone from history, who would it be and why?
I would have dinner with Emily Bronte (1818-1848). I think she is a bad-ass writer and I absolutely love her poetry. Every single one of her poems I have come across—"Ah, Why because the Dazzling Sun," "The Night is Darkening," "Fall, Leaves, Fall" and "Stanzas" have inspired me a great deal to write the songs that are in my current repertoire. If I had the opportunity to have dinner with her, I would ask her to write me a libretto for a really emo opera or song cycle, and I'm sure she would love to check out some female artists who have inspired me like Bjork and Tori Amos. We'd have a blast!

What would be your next dream writing project?
I really want to write a piece for orchestra featuring jazz soprano saxophone. I was really inspired by Roberto Sierra's saxophone concerto that featured James Carter when I was in my undergrad at Cornell. Funny story: I played French Horn in that piece and had no idea that Colin Gordon (my soprano saxophonist) was sitting in the audience listening to it, as he was in high school at the time and went to the concert at Ithaca high school to check it out. Playing that piece was one of the coolest experiences I ever had as a performer in a large ensemble, and I would love the opportunity to write a piece like that featuring Colin on soprano saxophone. If anyone knows of an orchestra who would be interested in a piece like this, let me know! =)

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