by Gus Marshall
This Saturday night Columbia City Theater will host a musical powerhouse. Twelve of some of the regions most coveted musicians will assemble to produce sonic imagery. The 12 piece all-star band will perform the musical narratives of veteran Hollywood television composer Ron Jones’ swinging symphonic arrangements. Cinematic Jazz is the genre Jones has bestowed upon his newest project entitled Jazz Forest.
After 37 years working in Los Angeles as a highly touted television composer, Ron Jones has returned to the Pacific Northwest and is excited to finally create music for himself. Jazz Forest is Jones’ vessel for his own completely free creative output after a long career of constrained artistical desires submerged by years of constant obligatory inspiration.
From composing the themes and crafting the scores to numerous television programs including but not limited to DuckTales, StarTrek: The Next Generation and Family Guy, and simultaneously holding the record for most musicians ever to appear in a television recording studio orchestra (96). Jones’ accomplishments read almost as long as the sheet music he writes for his band. Finding the musicians who could actually champion his intense and sometimes obsessive arrangements proved to be a struggle in itself. What transpired was a gathering of the Northwest’s titans of sight reading and a reconstruction of the ideals suggesting that performative jazz has to be an intimate delicacy.
“I’ve been fortunate to contribute to Jazz Forest’s performances of creative, fun, and inspiring arrangements of anything from jazz standards and original compositions, to pop tunes, all featuring top jazz artists in the Western Washington region. Each performance is unique and exciting, from the intricate visual expression to the presentation of new, emotive music. Both as a listener and performer, Ron’s music keeps you engaged in the spirit of the music-you never know what’s coming next!”- Jazz Forest’s Trumpeter Jared Hall
Gus Marshall- You have a lot of people in your band. What do you do when someone can’t make a gig?
Ron Jones– Once in a while you get a sub, if somebody has a conflict, in fact, we have a conflict with our guitarist, Brian Monroney, on this particular gig. So the band is actually about 2-3 people in each position. They all have their own bands, each of them. Susan Pascal has 9 of her own bands. Sometimes they have gigs, and we have to get our sub to come in. So that’s how that works.
G.M.– Is she playing on Saturday?
R.J.– I think we have Susan. I actually think the only sub we have is on guitar. We have two guitars, which is really unusual for a jazz band. I think it’s been outlawed in seven states (having two guitarists) because they get into fights, it creates conflict. But I’ve written it (the music) out so that they’re all doing different things. I remember the first rehearsal, we were in a fever and the band was all spaced out in a big semi-circle. I passed out all the charts, and they were all playing it.
At first, they were kind of skeptical, because there are two keyboards and two guitars in the band, and they thought they’d be stepping on each other’s toes, so to speak. Everything was written out so that nobody could step on each other, and so we have like an absolutely incredible middle section, with seven guys in the rhythm section and a front line four. It’s because everything is controlled, I sort of control the mayhem that could happen, and that could have been the name of the band, you know, controlled mayhem. Because technically, you should have chaos in a band like that. But all the years I’ve been doing professional writing for television and stuff like that, I always had weird bands, from Star Trek Next Generation to you name it. So I’m kind of used to kind of keeping everybody happy.
G.M.- I have a question about your compositions. They seem very detailed. Are the solos improvisations from the respective musicians, or are they written (composed) out?
R.J.- The section things are written out, just like you would normally write, like the head of the chart. And then, sort of as it develops, but no, all the guys have hash marks when they’re indicated to be doing solos. So we’re featuring players like Pete Christlieb. Pete was my tenor guy in LA for about thirty-six years, and he was in The Tonight Show band, and played for Natalie Cole, and everybody. So when he plays, everyone gets out of the way. I sort of have to organize it, because it’s like having a fog horn go off, it’s so huge. I sort of have to organize the thing, so the charts, I actually thought, because we do a multimedia kind of show as we go, of actually projecting the scores on a big screen behind the band. I think probably three people would get it (laughs).
G.M.- Is that something we can expect to see this Saturday?
R.J.- What we’re doing is we do have a video background, and we commissioned a filmmaker to actually create an homage to Alfred Hitchcock. There’s one piece that we do called North by Freaking West, and on North by Freaking West, it’s kind of an homage to Bernard Herman and Alfred Hitchcock, so we’re gonna do a video that goes with it. So it’s like live scoring.
This is how it’d be during a live scoring session, to picture, so I’ll have live clicks that are in sync with the picture, and the music goes with everything we’re doing. So we’re doing it backwards, we have to finish another project, then that films gonna be shot all live action to go with it. We have a big screen and a projector, and at the Columbia City Theater they have a real stage and we love that they have the great lights and a great audio system. Because when we go to jazz clubs, it’s usually very deficient in space for the band, I have some guys playing right where they’re serving drinks.
G.M.- Are there twelve musicians including yourself?
R.J.- Twelve in the band, and then I’m conducting. I front the band. This is like my band I had in LA with Seth McFarlane. So I conduct, and I sort of say bad jokes, and introduce the band, and kind of MC the thing. Occasionally I’ll pick up an instrument and join in, but generally, I’m conducting. Because the charts are, you know, it’s like Stravinsky, it’s very difficult stuff. So if I get screwed up, the band crashes and burns because I have to cue them. The charts are actually taller than the guys in the band. Like when they hold their charts up, it’s taller than they are tall.
G.M.- Yeah, I saw a picture of a bass player holding a chart that was taller than his upright bass. It looked like one of those extremely long target receipts but wider or if you got a real bad police file.
R.J.- I know. It does It looks like a bad police file, that’s right. That’s a good way to put it.
G.M.- When you’re talking about live scoring, is that for a film that’s yet to be released? Are you going to be doing any live scoring at this event?
R.J.- All of the music is written in what I call cinematic jazz. For instance, when you’re scoring a film, the music is underscoring a story. The difference with us is that the charts stand on their own, but the charts are also stretched in a way and shaped in a way that you’re supposed to kind of drift off as you’re listening, and it takes you into a journey. All of the tunes have a kind of narrative that I had in mind, so the goal is right now we just have video, one that’s animated and another one that was done with all kinds of visual special effects. Those just kind of run in the background now, but we’re working on ones that are going to be specific. We bring more gear than Led Zeppelin. The bartenders at these places can’t believe that we have five guys bringing in gear. Usually, with a jazz band, the players come in, and they take their hats off, horns out of the case, and just start blowing. But we have an extensive media thing because I figure if we can’t compete with Star Wars, then people will not come out to hear us anymore. Live music has to compete with all the other distractions. If we’re not as good as a Seahawk game in the fourth quarter, and they’re down by five, then we’re screwed.
G.M.- That’s right it’s all entertainment. Music, football, and art, and it’s up to the individual to decide what they would like to do with the little leisure time that they might have. I’m extremely excited for this show.
R.J.- Thank you so much for your interest! We’re trying to do something really different and we’re trying to do something really amazing in Seattle. In a town where they make it really hard for all music groups, all bands. The hardest thing is finding a venue where you can really do your thing. Getting a crowd there is your second challenge. And then once they’re there, making them freaking happy! Seattle gives way to some really great bands because if they can handle the pressure and the stress of playing in Seattle, they can be great anywhere! I think that’s what made Nirvana, they had to play in bowling alleys in Burien and stuff. You better be good when you’re playing in a bowling alley!
G.M.- Do you write with the musicians in mind or more with the instrument in mind?
R.J.- Well both really. You’re composing, and then you’re orchestrating and arranging; each has a specific thing. So, I may sit here and compose with pencil and paper, like the melodic and the actual tune of it. And then by the time you orchestrate and arrange it, you’re thinking ‘this is perfect for the trumpet’, ‘this could feature the tenor sax’, so you have to write it in their sweet spot so that it really sounds right. Otherwise, you might tell the alto sax he’s gonna play something on soprano sax, or the trumpet might be playing flugelhorn or the tenor might be playing something else, he might grab something else. You have to kind of, you really have to tailor it really close. All of these need to be written in the highest order to feature the band. We have Jeff Kashiwa, who plays with the Ripingtons, and Bodie James, and those guys.
Each one of our players literally blows your mind with what they can do, as you can tell. Everything has to be written for them, or else it’s really odd, for them. I really have to cater. My first job is to make them happy in the rehearsal, and make them feel that it is custom. When we have somebody come in and sight-read one of the chairs for rehearsal, they’re amazed, always amazed at what’s going on there, that this is a reading band, that everybody is sight reading their butts off, every note that’s written in the charts. They have their chord changes just as you would have, its open for solos, same with the drums and everybody. So once they really get going, I mean it becomes sort of free form. We’re doing some Sly & the Family Stone, and we’re doing Let Me Take You Higher, and there’s one section where the solo is like one horn for like 15 minutes, and people are just like wanging on it. It reminds me definitely of the vibe in the 60’s where everything was just you know, John Coltrane and all the guys would just kind of like go into this amazing trance of things. But everything is very written out, very symphonic, keyboard too.
Our keyboard guy he’s really not a jazz guy, he’s like a legit guy that’s played with the opera, and he plays the actual string parts I’ve written out, or B3 organ parts, or whatever specific things are written out. So often, you feel like ‘why is there a string section here?’ ‘why is there an orchestra? I don’t see an orchestra!’ And he’s playing symphonically-composed parts. So I don’t improvise with him; I make them exactly like coordinates for everything. So if he’s sick too, somebody else can come in and read that part, if they are skilled enough to read it. Some of the chairs are so difficult, that we had a real hard time finding people that can actually play them. It’s like a concerto. I think what dazzles people is they focus on one part of the band, then all of the sudden their senses go ‘wait a minute; there’s some crazy shit going on, on the other side!’ Then when they’re looking over there, the other side is doing something, so again I’m really trying to make something musically equivalent to a feature film.
And plus I want it to be fun. You can’t talk in a movie theater; you’re eating popcorn and watching it, but you have to sit quietly like you’re in the library. And I want people to yak and have fun; in fact, I don’t even care if they listen to us! But if they are having a great time, that was our goal; our goal was for them to enjoy the evening, to be transferred into an altered state. I think the Northwest crowds are not sure if we’re a concert, and they don’t know if they’re supposed to have fun. I always have to say “Look, this is not a recital, and we’re not gonna have a dentist come in and give you a root canal. As much as we’d love to give everybody a root canal, we’re actually here to have fun! And if you don’t applaud I’m gonna call an ambulance to get an E.M.T to come down here and check your pulse!” And they look at me like what is wrong with this guy (laughs). After fifteen years of Family Guy, my humor is totally bent.
G.M – I bet.
R.J. – Too much time with Seth McFarlane.
What: Ron Jones’ Jazz Forest
Where: Columbia City Theater. 4916 Rainier Ave South
When: Saturday, February 3, 2018
Featured image courtesy of Ron Jones’ Orchestra