January 08, 2014

The Virtuous Music of Joseph Daley

Joseph Daley

Joseph Daley

Over a nearly four-decade career, ASCAP composer and tuba/euphonium player Joseph Daley made vital contributions to provocative jazz bands led by Sam Rivers, Carla Bley, Gil Evans, Charlie Haden, Muhal Richard Abrams and more – all the while teaching public school students to understand the power of music more deeply. You can hear his decades of experience as both a musician and educator in the multi-hued writing, buoyant arrangements and passionate musicianship on his 2013 album The Seven Heavenly Virtues, the follow-up to his highly regarded The Seven Deadly Sins. We spoke with this consummate composer-musician about the journey he took between the conception and the completion of his Virtues project.

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How did the idea of a cycle based on the seven deadly sins and virtues develop? 

The Seven Deadly Sins was inspired by a good friend of mine, Wade Schuman. He’s the leader of the band I play with called Hazmat Modine, and he’s also a very fine painter. He did a series of paintings based on the seven deadly sins and I was taken by the paintings. I got the opportunity to go to the McDowell Colony to work on a project. They gave me a month’s time where I could just work on a musical composition. [Wade] had them on a video tape, so I took the paintings with me and I used those to inspire me as I developed The Seven Deadly Sins.

The Seven Deadly Sins is a highly orchestrated piece, [for] a full, extended jazz ensemble. For my second album, I wanted to do something that would contrast the heaviness of the sins and also the heaviness of the jazz ensemble. Themes on The Seven Heavenly Virtues are very, very light themes. They’re not highly developed, they just kind of come at you well-orchestrated, but they don’t go into the intense development that I used when I produced and worked on The Seven Deadly Sins.

On The Seven Heavenly Virtues, each piece has its own sound world and feel. How did you match up a specific virtue with a musical setting? 

It’s a difficult thing, because it will connect with some people but for other people it will not connect. That’s why there are many composers these days that will write their pieces but try not to relate the titles to anything that’s a concrete thing - they just give very abstract titles. There’s no relationship between their music and something out there in the living world. For me, each one of the virtues definitely excited a sense in me. We went through the definitions of each one of the virtues and slowly began to internalize what those things really meant to me, and then I began to transfer that into a sound concept. As I went along, I got better and better at it. 

Did most of the pieces start out as a musical theme? Or was it more complicated than that?

It’s basically that. I keep a sketchpad of materials that I want to develop into full compositions, so [for] many of the virtues, I found sketches that emulated where I would be. I took those sketches and began to use those to become full compositions and to motivate me to finish each composition. I had thematic material that I developed, and then orchestrated.

The last piece was an improvised string ensemble I used. As we were rehearsing, I asked each musician which one of the virtues they felt they could really relate to, and used that as an improvisational vehicle. That gave it the extra dimension it needed, because not only was I writing the compositions, but I also had the soloists that emulated these same types of virtues.

How did you find the musicians on the album?

I grew up in music in a very unusual way. The New York City school system - when I was growing up, they had one of the finest programs in the country as far as taking public school kids and working with them to develop them as musicians. The guy that played the trumpet, the guy that played the French horn, I related to them via their instruments besides being very close friends. I went to a junior high school program that had a hundred-piece middle school concert band, so I was always surrounded by people that were my friends, but also played instruments.

As I was writing the Sins, more so than the Virtues, the soloists that I chose were people that I knew and people that I grew up with; they were also people that came to me as I was writing the suites. But when I became a professional musician, I was not surrounded by string players as much as brass and woodwind players. [For Virtues] I had to go through a contractor; his name is Curtis Stewart. I was looking for people to come in and contribute to the music past just reading the music off the paper. They would contribute more and become part of the music. We were also looking for musicians that were good soloists and would take chances at everything.

You spent most of your life as a musician, playing tuba, euphonium and other brass instruments. Are there techniques that cross over between brass and string writing?

The string orchestra is a whole different ball game than dealing with brass. You definitely have to think completely differently. Mainly because [with] brass [writing], you’re making sure people have breath, you understand all those phrasing things you just do about everyday. Now approaching the string orchestra – up-bow, down-bow, those types of phrasing concepts – if you just put down the notes on the page without those bowings, the music would sound completely different. 

You really have to sit down with a very fine concert master, which is what I had with Curtis Stewart. During the rehearsals, we’d be playing through a piece and we would stop the orchestra; he would recommend different bowings, and section leaders would get together and recommend different types of bowing, phrasing and muting techniques. We actually became a family at the end, where everybody just wanted the project to be successful, so they began to give me amazing input.

Given all the freedom that you gave your musicians, did any of the pieces on Virtues end up differently than you expected?

That’s the thing about live musicians. When I come in with a piece of music, it’s not like, “This is the way the piece has to sound and it will never change.” I came in with metronomes set, but when the musicians were playing, they kept falling back and falling forward as far as tempo. Certain pieces that I thought would move into a more aggressive thing became more passive. 

It’s not “my way or the highway” with me. I don’t see music as being that; especially when you tell musicians to internalize the music and express it from how they feel. I’ll have an idea of how I want the piece to sound when I come to it. But if the piece begins to evolve and change and do different things, I’m totally happy with it. As long as the musicians are happy with it and it’s sounding good, then I’ll go with it.

You’ve worked with some of the best-known arrangers and orchestrators in jazz. What did you learn from folks like Carla Bley and Gil Evans?

What you learn about the great arrangers and writers is that they’re very meticulous. Like Sam Rivers…every rehearsal he came to he was well prepared. If he called for a three-hour rehearsal, we had three hours worth of music to rehearse. The same thing with Carla. She lays stuff out, she explains stuff to you.

When you start studying people like Gil Evans, the most important thing for him was what the inner voices were doing. When those clusters came together, whether they were tight, loose or closed clusters, they produce these wonderful chord tones. Gil and Carla would throw notes in there that would have nothing to do with the chord, just to get that color they wanted. Then you get into people like George Lewis – it’s a whole different sense of tonality. 

And then, the step that all the great arrangers and orchestrators [take] that brings it into greatness is that they let the musicians internalize the music, let the musicians influence the music past what’s on the paper. Everyone always goes back to the Ellington concept. He knew all the members of the orchestra and he wrote for those members specifically. He wasn’t just writing for a saxophone player – he was writing for Johnny Hodges. I attempted to use that same approach for The Sins.

How has being an ASCAP member impacted your career, and what do you think the importance of ASCAP’s mission is? 

I joined ASCAP mainly because, as I was going through Duke Ellington’s music, I saw that he was a member of ASCAP. People who know Duke Ellington’s history know that his publishing was instrumental in his ability to keep the orchestra together. Many times he would have to go to his publishing dollars and cents in order to keep the orchestra afloat.

I saw how important it was to be part of a good set-up, like ASCAP had with Duke Ellington. I may never get to 3,000 compositions like he did, but I’m working towards developing a legacy. When you develop a legacy, you need to have it rest on a stable foundation, and I really can’t see any more stable foundation than ASCAP. I believe that to be true.

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Visit Joseph Daley online at jodamusic.com.

Buy The Seven Heavenly Virtues on CDBaby.