The Virtue of Failed Experiments

About 10 years ago, I formed a new band for the sole purpose of stretching myself and experimenting musically. I teamed up with instruments not typically associated with jazz — cello, clarinet & percussion — so I’d be forced to play differently. I wrote all kinds of crazy music, most of which used unconventional notation. There were cartoon drawings, graphs, charts, narratives, etc. On some pieces I played only on the inside of the piano, never touching the actual keys. Here’s an example of one of the pieces I wrote during this period:

"Looking Forward, Looking Back," a graphic composition by Earl MacDonald
…then we did our first gig.

It was a packed house at the Tolland Arts Center in Connecticut. After each tune the audience looked more and more perplexed, despite my attempts to add humorous anecdotes and explanations to draw them in. During the intermission I overheard someone in the bathroom say “his definition of music and mine are clearly not the same.”

“Hmmm…,” I thought, “maybe I need to rethink this band and our approach.”

Although it was fun, challenging music to play, we had alienated our audience. We had taken self-indulgence to a new level. Rather than disband the group entirely, I decided to add some more accessible repertoire to our book and arrange it to fit our odd instrumentation to create something fresh, yet less threatening. In brainstorming artists who are loved across generations, the Beatles and Nat Cole rose to the top. So, I arranged Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird” and a Nat Cole medley of “Nature Boy and Calypso Blues.”

Earl MacDonald's Creative Opportunity WorkshopAt our next concert (far away from Tolland, CT), we flipped our approach, playing a set of mostly accessible tunes, with only a couple of experimental pieces interspersed for variety. The audience loved it! In fact, after the show, many people cited their favorite pieces as being the avant-garde selections. By framing those pieces between less challenging material, the listeners became “open” to hearing something unconventional. I learned an important lesson that day… never forget about the audience.

Both “Blackbird” and my “Nat King Cole Medley” were recorded when this band finally went into the studio. Ultimately “Blackbird” was released on our “Mirror of the Mind” album, but chose to withhold the “Nat King Cole Medley” for later.
My version is a slight departure from Nat’s original, but I think you’ll dig it. As I mentioned, the track is not currently available for sale but as a thank you for being one of my subscribers I want to give it to you for free – no strings attached.

Download my version of “Nature Boy/Calypso Blues” here.

If you like the track you might also consider checking out “Mirror of the Mind.” It’s my latest album and it’s full of variety, familiar gems and surprises.

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