I want to create something that is me— that is an oral dissertation of how I feel at that time, in that moment. At the highest realm, my compositions are a vehicle for self-expression. In other words, I’m going to compose life.
Duke Ellington wrote a piece every day. He was writing pieces, banging out pieces. He was inspired to write. He was writing for his band, he was writing for certain people.
But at the same time I am heavily influenced by Mingus as a composer and a writer. It was the same with him. He was writing life.
There’s a song, Sue’s Changes. He and his wife Sue went through a lot together. From the moment they met up until the end of his life, just dealing with life together. You can hear that. It’s a tribute to her and her beauty and her fire.
A great composer can make people feel a certain way about the subject that they’re writing about. That’s why I love Mingus titles.
There’s another song, The Shoes of the Fisherman’s Wife Are Some Jive Ass Slippers. When you hear the song, you are transported. This fisherman’s wife, she might not like the fisherman. He sees his wife’s slippers, and it’s like, ‘Those are some jive-ass slippers.’
Cut from the same cloth
Since the pandemic I’ve been writing for three specific people: George Burton, Joe Dyson, and Emilio Modeste. In April 2020, I was on the verge of being really depressed. [Right before that time,] It was probably my most promising spring as a leader. I had serious work coming up.
During that time I said to myself, If God gives me a chance to make it through this, I want to come out with a new band and some new music. I began thinking about who I want to play with.
I called George Burton immediately. Me and George are sort of cut from the same cloth, musically. We’re around the same age, and met in 2002. I’ve known Emilio since he was about 12 years old. I’ve always been a fan of his playing.
I first met Joe Dyson when he was 15 years old. When he came out of college we wound up on some gigs together, and he became like a little brother to me.
I called the three of them up and asked, “Would you be in a band with me once we get a chance to step out of the house?” I made it a point to let them know that it’s a collective effort. Meaning, Yes, it’s my band. But everybody’s contributing.
By November 2020 I had written maybe ten pieces specifically for George, Joe, and Emilio. I just know how they play.
I’ve been living a lot of life the last two years—this has been one of the most challenging periods in my life as a human and as an adult. At the time Miller Theatre asked me to play this concert, I was pouring my heart out onto the paper—just putting it out there.
I was really writing life.
This opportunity at Miller Theatre is a blessing for me. I love Miller [the theater]. I’ve been playing there since 2006. I’ve been on some memorable concerts, and made my debut there as a leader. It’s one of my favorite stages in New York City.
Then I was told the show has a holiday theme. I was initially worried— did I have to write Christmas music? —then realized what I had been writing this whole year had holiday season emotions.
A time of self-reflection
I grew up in the ‘hood, in Hartford, Connecticut. I also lived in Harlem for a while. I sort of experienced the same thing every holiday. It’s the time when family gets together—it’s supposed to be beautiful, you celebrate family, spirituality, togetherness.
But at that time of the year, there is this angst and anxiety. People realize what they have and don’t have. Violent things happen, mostly because people don’t know how to express themselves the right way.
One of the pieces I’m bringing to Miller is called Cold Spring. I finished it the first week of a super-cold March, but it has everything to do with winter and the holidays.
Christmas last year felt strange. It was the first Christmas without my grandfather. His funeral was the day of my debut as a bandleader at Miller on March 5, 2022, and I had to watch the funeral on the live stream. It was sort of like the beginning of a chain of craziness in my universe.
The New Year is also a time of self-reflection. This sense of a new chapter, whatever it’s going to bring. Something always happens, you know. Like, who knew during the holidays of 2020 that the Capitol was going to be taken over by crazy civilians.
Also, I’ve been writing some music with Wilbur Ware in mind. On September 8, 2023, Wilbur, one of the great bassists from Chicago, would have turned 100. I’m highly influenced by him. I’ve been listening to a lot of his music this year.
And, it’s almost as if Wilbur were with Santa Claus, you know.