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concert piece for 3 solo Trumpets, Strings and Percussion by James M. Stephenson
In the spring of 2008, my good friend, Paul Merkelo (Solo Trumpet- Montreal Symphony), called me to tell me that he had just formed a new trumpet trio, called NEXT, and they wanted a new piece to celebrate their first concert to be held at the Banff ITG Conference that summer. The group consisted of Niklas Eklund, on Baroque trumpet, Paul on “Classical” trumpet, and Rex Richardson, on “Jazz” trumpet. Our mutual friend and Baroque trumpet specialist, Nathaniel Mayfield, also agreed to go in the commission. The idea was to fuse together the old and the new styles and create a “new sound” – something uniquely their own, highlighting their strengths as top players in each of their specialties.
When confronted with the notion of composing this brand new piece, using baroque pitched trumpets with only an overtone series available, transposing flügelhorns and piccolo trumpets, and forging a “new sound” combining the old with the current, I must admit that my head began to spin! Luckily, I had every composer’s friend, J.S. Bach, to turn to for inspiration.
Googling the word “NEXT” turned up a Bach chorale which became the source material for the opening of the piece. Another source was the chord progression in a section of the 2nd movement of Bach’s 2nd Brandenburg concerto (trumpet players may or may not recognize this – depending on what’s going through their head during that 2nd movement!). I was delighted to discover that the V-I progression sequence used therein was almost identical to that used in the popular jazz tune “All the Things You Are” (and many others). With over 200 years of music immediately connected by these chord similarities, plus an added groove adapted from a tune heard on the radio at a Caribbean Music Festival (with Paul), I was on my way.
I didn’t want to simply quote these tunes, but rather to draw from them. In fact, I only used the progressions a couple of times, when, because of their familiarity, the music almost takes on a quasi-pop sound. Beyond that, I relied on juxtaposing rhythms (setting hemiolas in a modern texture), and employing color, jazzy 12-tone grooves and generous use of various blues scales (by all players) to lay the foundation of this new work. Whether or not I created a “new sound” is not for me to decide – it is my goal to write music that is enjoyable to listen to, yet interesting to study, if desired.
The title – “NEXT-Calibur” – refers to the name of the group, of course, but also symbolizes this group taking music to the next level, or caliber. By coincidence, it also happened that the name of the concert showcasing the premiere mentioned the word Legend – which, of course, is what “ExCalibur” is: the legendary sword of King Arthur.
Jim Stephenson, Composer May 14, 2008