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Frank Proto, Text by John Chenault
Mingus - Live in the Underworld

By Frank Proto

About a year after John and I finished Ode to a Giant (and a 70-minute work for the Cincinnati Symphony's 100th anniversary: Ghost in Machine - an American Music Drama for Vocalist, Narrator and Orchestra featuring Cleo Laine and Paul Winfield) we were at work on a new CD project: Afro-American Fragments. We decided that a series of works honoring some of America's great jazz musicians would be apropos. We made a long list and for the CD settled on Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Charles Mingus.

Mingus was in many respects the opposite of Dizzy. Diz was one of those guys who was easy to love. His personality, at least in public was usually bright and outgoing. He loved humor and often told jokes while on the bandstand. Mingus, on the other hand was, to put it mildly, difficult. There was no humor in his playing, composing or demeanor. You had to work to like him. And much of the time, even those closest to him didn't succeed. He was rude to his sidemen, rude to audiences and got into fights with just about anyone. So how come we decided to dedicate a piece to him? Well, when we look back we discover that the guy was right in so many important instances, that society just took too much (and is still taking) time to discover why he was so angry and how that anger manifested itself in his music.

John Chenault's words capture Mingus' being splendidly. The music is more integrated throughout this piece than in Ode to a Giant since I set it after the words were written. Read John Chenault's complete text
A recording is available of this work.

Frank Proto
Sketches of Gershwin for Clarinet and String Orchestra

By Frank Proto

Sketches of Gershwin was composed in 1998. The idea behind the piece, besides providing a new vehicle for clarinet virtuoso Eddie Daniels to showcase his unique talents, was to celebrate George's 100th anniversary.

In thinking about Gershwin and his influence on American music it is only natural to wonder where his music would have gone had he not died at the age of 38 and was able to keep the creative juices flowing for another 25 or 30 years. This is not an easy question on which to speculate. In our youth-oriented culture, conventional wisdom likes to tell us that creative artists are the most productive in their early years, and there is plenty of evidence to support that supposition: Richard Strauss had written almost all of his most important tone poems by the age of 35. Trumpeter Clifford Brown died at the age of 25 but is still celebrated as one of the most influential improvisors the jazz world has ever seen. Pianist Glenn Gould had accomplished enough for any five human beings by the age of 30 and continued to thrive until his death a few days after his 50th birthday. On the other hand we have the Italian Opera composer Giuseppe Verdi who created two of his greatest masterpieces late in life: Othello at the age of 73 and Falstaff when he was 80! Fran¨ois Rabbath, in his 76th year continues to push the bar ever upwards for double bassists. Not enough? How about composer Elliot Carter, born in 1908, who in November 2005 had world premiere performances by the Boston and Chicago Symphonies of two new works on two successive evenings!

Conventional wisdom aside, it is always fascinating to theorize on what roads Gershwin might have traveled had his health not failed him. His prodigious song catalog alone has guaranteed singers and instrumentalists prime material for generations to come. His gift for melody was an inspiration to an elite golden-age generation of songwriters. Rhapsody in Blue - commissioned in 1922 by Paul Whitman for a concert billed as An Experiment in Modern Music - showed signs of a young composer wishing to push popular music in a more adventurous direction. By the time Porgy and Bess opened in 1935 Gershwin could be regarded as one of our supreme crossover artists. It is very difficult to instigate change in any institution that has gotten used to doing things its own way. Was Porgy an opera? Was it a musical? Both audiences and critics were confused (and probably suspicious too) and it closed after only 124 performances. Although some of Porgy's songs became popular before his death in 1937, Gershwin never knew of the huge success that it was to become.

While working on Sketches I tried to keep George in mind. His roots in the Ragtime and 1920s Jazz age served as an atmosphere or tableau for me. If the listener looks for overt quotes or even small hints at Gershwin tunes he'll be disappointed, as that was not what I was up to. If however, the overall essence and harmonies suggest a road he might have explored later, then she'll be on the right track.

It is fitting that the world premiere performance of Sketches of Gershwin took place at the 2006 Salt Lake City International Jazz Festival. To be honest it never occurred to me to present this kind premiere at a Jazz concert. Perhaps my own prejudices were at work here, but mulling things over I found the solution via another common link with George. This is exactly what I love doing: pushing audiences and their musical experiences in more adventurous directions!

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Frank Proto
Preludes for Clarinet and String Orchestra

By Frank Proto

The Two Preludes were composed in 2006 for virtuoso clarinetist Eddie Daniels. Both can stand alone as short miniatures or used as introductions - i.e. Preludes - to two George Gershwin songs: I Loves you Porgy and Fascinating Rhythm. They are also meant to be companion pieces to Proto's Sketches of Gershwin.

Like Sketches of Gershwin, the Preludes can be said to explore the questions of which musical roads Gershwin might have traveled had tragedy not taken him from us just as he was entering his prime.

Using the Preludes as introductions I am hoping to set up an ambience where twisting the harmonies and form of George's melodies seems logical rather than incoherent. Although a superb pianist and quite a decent improviser himself, Gershwin never did get around to exploring the area of improvisation within his larger works. I am certain, had he lived, it would have only been a matter of time before he got there.

The Preludes and the arrangements of their associated songs take slightly different paths to get to their destinations. No. 1 (to I Loves you Porgy), the more serene of the two features a freely played (written) clarinet cadenza, which melts into a short improvisation to end the Prelude. This sets up the beautiful Porgy melody, which is reharmonized and later combined with elements of the Prelude.

No. 2 (to Fascinating Rhythm) is a more elaborate affaire, the Prelude being extended for both soloist and orchestra. The tune goes through several variations moving from the familiar (and comforting?) through the bizarre and back again sometimes within just a few bars culminating with a wild mixture of elements from both Prelude and song to bring it to a fiery close.

Both of these works received their world premiere performances at the 2006 Salt Lake City International Jazz Festival. The soloist was Eddie Daniels with Frank Proto conducting the Utah Symphony Orchestra. While certainly not straightforward jazz pieces it is fitting that they be brought to life before the kind of audience that George would have loved to play for.

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