In 1998, I was commissioned by JALC to write a new piece called Big Train
In 1998, I was commissioned by JALC to write a new piece called Big Train. It was composed during a 3-week tour of Asia, Australia, and Europe. Victor Goines was the copyist, and the work was so constant and unrelenting that it nearly killed both of us. When creating long pieces (that are certain to have limited listenership at best) I always work on the outline for a long time to make sure the structure makes absolute sense. Then, when it’s late, I start actually writing music. By this time, the necessity to finish quickly creates an intense pressure and a critical energy that forces me to concentrate. The music begins as a trickle and soon, it pours in.
After the first week of the tour Vic said, “Hey, bruh. It’s getting late.” Finally, I started writing. After the first couple of nights, he finished what I gave him and smilingly told me each next day, “Done! Man this is going to be easy.” I gave him an impish, “No, no, no. Just wait.” Into the second week of writing, substantially more music started to come, and then…. a pile of it. By the final week we were both working around the clock. When we weren’t playing our nightly gig, we were working in airports, on flights, in cabs, hotel lobbies, backstage…everywhere and anywhere, all the time.
I can’t tell you what a blessing it was (and is) to work with someone you went to kindergarten with, played alongside in an elementary school honor band, competed in rival funk bands, and even shared the same teachers with. We have that special familiarity that yields both a deep empathy and human concern, and also the frustrating dysfunction of family. That empathy was sure hard at work on this tour.
At one point there was just too much to be done and Vic said, “I have to send some of this back to New York to be copied.” I said, “They won’t understand the shorthand. See what you can do.”
And he kept at it, working way past the point of exhaustion.
One night in Japan, we were up at 5 in the morning hard at work. Vic was at his computer copying, and I was sitting beside him checking some parts. Suddenly, the entire hotel started swaying and rumbling. I looked around to see if the light fixtures were moving and began planning an exit. Vic didn’t even flinch. I said, “Say man, did you feel that?” He said, “Man, right now, all I’m feeling is what’s on this computer right here in front of me.” We started laughing and went on to finish all except the last movement in time for our last gig in Portugal.
At the rehearsal before the final concert, Victor had a printer set up on the stage so we could go directly from printing to playing parts. As luck would have it, the printer broke. I really didn’t want to have to ask cats to stay over and rehearse the rest of it because we were unbelievably jet-lagged, having just flown from Asia to Portugal. We had to learn a difficult piece that was being printed at the rehearsal for the gig THAT NIGHT and it was clearly my fault that everything was late.
This is where that family part comes in. I told Vic, “I can’t ask cats to stay at this rehearsal.” “Man!” He replied, “This was too much work bruh, I will.” So he said, “Hey cats, I know we are all frustrated, but this is the last movement of the piece. I need y’all to give me one hour to finish this. Can you take a one-hour break and come back? If you do this, I promise I’ll be finished.” The whole band unanimously agreed to break and come back to rehearse the final movement. Everyone was worn out and he hadn’t slept at all for the last week. It was very meaningful and moving for me. As usual, the cats came through for the music and me, and went far beyond the call of duty. We did it and learned the music, and some of us were actually falling asleep on the gig. It was a rough night.
This is “Sleeper Car” from Big Train. It features individual horn players sharing one phrase of a larger melody, and then we all play in unison over the swing bed of the rhythm section. It was recorded in December of 1998.