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Spotlight Project: Brett Gold New York Jazz Orchestra Dreaming Big
How many young people’s dreams, you wonder, have been short-circuited by adults advising them to study something of practical value—something “to fall back on”?
For many years, Brett Gold’s artistic potential lay fallow. A star trombonist in high school, he was steered away from a life in music—his trombone teacher, of all people, said becoming a musician was the last thing he should do; his father urged him to take a course in accounting—and he became a lawyer.
Gold is hardly unhappy about the formidable success he ultimately achieved in the field of international and corporate tax law. But only after he changed course and (apologies to Robert Frost) followed the road not taken—25 years into his legal career—did he find himself on the path to true fulfillment.
Dreaming Big, the aptly named debut of his New York Jazz Orchestra, is remarkable not only for its very existence—Gold went a full decade without even touching his horn—but also for the striking sounds it offers. A tour de force, ranging from 12-tone melodies to playful Monkisms to a stirring political statement, the album introduces one of jazz’s most challenging new voices.
At the same time, the warmth and cohesion of Dreaming Big imparts the easy sophistication of an artist of far greater experience.
Joined by such first-call players as saxophonists Charles Pillow and Tim Ries, trumpeter Scott Wendholt, trombonist John Allred, bassist Phil Palombi, and drummer Scott Neumann, Gold drew generously on his personal history in writing the material. “Pumpkinhead, P.I.,” inspired by the giddy sense of surprise over the size of Gold’s newborn son, now a very tall 13-year-old, builds on a 12-tone melody to evoke the swanky noir of Henry Mancini’s Peter Gunn theme. Pillow carouses on tenor saxophone.
“Stella’s Waltz,” featuring Wendholt on flugelhorn and Matt Hong on alto saxophone, joyfully commemorates the marriage of Gold’s late father and stepmother. Another lovely waltz, “Lullaby for Lily,” written for his nearly grown-up daughter, is a bedtime tale that casts Mark Vinci, on soprano saxophone, and Wendholt, on cup-muted trumpet, as overmatched Mom and Dad.
“Exit, Pursued by a Bear,” named after a famous stage direction in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, is dedicated to novelist John Irving, whose longtime copy editor happens to be Gold’s wife. It’s a slow-to-medium blues with a bridge that nods at Bob Brookmeyer’s arrangement of “Django’s Castle” for the Gerry Mulligan Concert Jazz Band and Neal Hefti’s arrangement of “Li’l Darlin’” for the Count Basie Orchestra.
And then there’s “Nakba,” the powerful 11-minute finale, which was composed partly with Gold’s Moroccan sister-in-law in mind. The song is named after the Arabic word for “catastrophe,” used by the Palestinians to describe the Arab-Israeli War of 1948. Featuring Ries on soprano saxophone, it traces the tragic history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “Is any resolution to this conflict ever possible?” Gold asks in his liner notes to the album. Talk about big dreams.
Brett Gold was born on August 14, 1956, in Baltimore and raised in the predominantly Jewish suburb of Pikesville, not far from the neighborhoods Barry Levinson documented in Diner and other films. Taking up the trombone in elementary school, he quickly mastered the difficult horn, and his early achievements included performing at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, under the direction of the great conductor and composer Morton Gould.
But jazz always spoke to him more than classical did. When he was only 12 or 13, he was drawn to the music of bandleader Claude Thornhill via Thornhill protégé Gil Evans’s arrangements of such tunes as “Arab Dance” and “The Troubadour.” Evans’s arrangement of “Moon Dreams” (originally written for Thornhill), in fact, became the inspiration on Dreaming Big for “Dream Moon.” Gold credits his generous use of clarinets and flutes in his arrangements to the early influence of Thornhill and Evans.
While his classmates were listening to Paul Revere & the Raiders and Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, young Brett was listening to his father’s Benny Goodman and Harry James 78s, which had been stashed in the back of his basement. “There is little or no rock-based influence in any of my writing,” he says. “My nervous system doesn’t react well to rock-like beats—they stimulate my fight-or-flight response.”
During his adolescence, Gold played with composer Hank Levy’s Towson State College Jazz Ensemble. The band’s book—all originals in unusual time signatures that Levy wrote for the big bands of Stan Kenton and trumpeter Don Ellis, such as “Whiplash” (featured in the film of the same name)—had a lasting impact on him. Among the compositions on Dreaming Big, the Middle Eastern-themed “Al-Andalus” (featuring a virtuosic turn by trumpeter Jon Owens) is partly in 11/4 and partly in 5/4. “That Latin Tinge” is a 7/4 mambo, not the usual time signature for a salsa piece. Even the fairly straightforward “Stella’s Waltz” can trip someone up with its occasional judiciously placed bar of 5/4.
After finishing high school a year early, Gold attended the University of Rochester as a double major in history and film studies (he graduated Magna Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa). He was able to continue his musical studies at UR’s Eastman School of Music, where he played with one of its nationally recognized jazz ensembles. But jazz then took a back seat to jurisprudence. He acquired a J.D. from Columbia University Law School, and an LL.M in tax law at New York University Law School.
Even as he put music on hold, however, it continued to play an important role in Gold’s life. “I found out that you can stop playing music, but it’s still there circulating in your head,” he says.
When he returned to jazz, Gold had no problem coming up with ideas for compositions; his head was full of them. But lacking piano skills, he had no facility to either play them or get them down on paper. Where there’s a will: He sketched out his pieces and hired professional musicians to record demo-like CDs of them. Then, studying privately with such distinguished teachers as Pete McGuinness, Neal Kirkwood, and David Berger, he learned how to write complex compositions for big band.
“Pete was just so encouraging,” Gold says. “He barely knew me but recognized this Irving Berlin-like thing in me. Berlin couldn’t write music or play piano with any facility, either. But somehow he found a way to translate his ideas onto paper and create incredible music. Pete helped me to take whatever musical gifts I had and make something out of it.”
One happy turn led to another and Gold ended up getting into the vaunted BMI Jazz Composers Workshop, under the direction of Mike Abene, Jim McNeely, and Mike Holober. He developed a book of more than two dozen arrangements, benefiting from the help of fellow students, including Steve Lindeman (who released his own big band debut, The Day After Yesterday, in 2013).
“I would write things for BMI that I could hear in my mind, but not really know why or how they worked musically,” says Gold. “Steve has a Ph.D. in music theory. I would show him something I was working on and he would give me five pages of musicological analysis that helped me immeasurably.”
“As a member of BMI, I was pushed to write longer, more abstract orchestral pieces, something I resisted,” he continues. “Instead, I looked to the way Duke Ellington wrote for his band—his best pieces were seldom more than three to five minutes long, while his longer, more ambitious pieces, such as ‘Reminiscing in Tempo,’ were, to be honest, not that musically successful.”
“I also admired Ellington’s idea of writing for individual members of the band,” Gold says. “I try to feature particular instruments or colors in my pieces—trumpet on ‘Al-Andalus,’ soprano sax on ‘Dream Moon,’ baritone saxophone on ‘Monkfish.’ But I’ve always found Billy Strayhorn to be the more interesting member of that team. His melodies have a sophistication and complexity that only Benny Golson and Tadd Dameron could approach. One of my unrecorded pieces is titled, ‘Goodbye, Swee’pea,’ referring to Strayhorn’s nickname and his premature death.”
Over the years, Gold has absorbed and strongly personalized any number of influences. A study in diminished chords featuring clarinets and flutes, “Theme from an Unfinished Film” reveals his debt to what he calls the “internalized lyricism” of movie composers such as Bernard Herrmann, David Raksin, and Ennio Morricone.
“Monkfish,” featuring a gregarious solo by baritone saxophonist Frank Basile, is an example of Gold’s writing in a lighthearted mode. It also speaks to his need to go outside the box creatively. So does “Infinity Row,” another 12-tone piece, this one an intriguing blend of experimentation and classic swing band exchanges. “That Latin Tinge” is lifted by a trombone section tribute to Barry Rogers, one of salsa’s greatest voices on the horn.
Trombonists make the best arrangers because “they don’t have much to do in big bands,” says Gold, only half-kidding. He points to the likes of Slide Hampton (whom he considers grievously underrated as an arranger), Johnny Mandel, Don Sebesky, Nelson Riddle, Billy Byers, and Billy VerPlanck. For Gold, finding himself as a composer and arranger has enabled him, against all odds, to achieve the kind of success he would not have been able to achieve as an instrumentalist.
“I have a pretty honest view of my talent,” he says. “While I have a modicum of performing talent, I would never have risen to the level of a professional New York trombonist. I’d always have been a journeyman player. I actually function a lot better in a dark room writing music.”
And dreaming big. •