Northern Arizona University at John Mackey's Blog

May 20, 2006

Northern Arizona University

A few days ago, I received a CD from Northern Arizona University. Daniel Schmidt conducted a performance of “Sasparilla” there on April 26, and as per my rental agreement, they sent me a CD of the concert. WOW. It was just first-rate. I had been told that Daniel would give a good performance, but I had no idea it would be anything like this. The group really “got” the piece, and Sasparilla is a piece that just doesn’t work if the group and the conductor don’t get it. It’s technically really difficult, but it needs to sound crazy, not hard.

I think I can tell even more about a conductor from a Sasparilla performance than a Redline Tango performance. With Redline Tango, if a group plays what’s on the page, it sounds fine. Lots of room for interpretation to make it much better, of course, especially in the tango solos, but the real challenge is finding groups that can even play what’s on the page. With Sasparilla, though, the group has to do even more, because the notes have to be played with a certain attitude and style. Really, the notes aren’t the most important thing at all. The conductor has to know what’s funny in the piece, and why, and where it’s appropriate to go beyond what I wrote down. The tempo transitions are also much harder in Sasparilla. Although the individual parts are easier than Redline Tango, I think Sasparilla might be even harder to conduct — or at least harder to interpret.

And that’s why I was so excited when I heard this recording. It was funny, and had this amazing energy, like the players were so excited to be playing. The group was even nice enough to email me a few photos from the concert, which I’ll share here. If you listen to the recording, you’ll hear the crowd start laughing before the piece even starts. What was going on? I figured it was because of the accordion player. I mean, hey, accordions are funny. I chuckle, too, when I see it. But that wasn’t it. I mean, it was the accordion player, but the accordion itself wasn’t the funny part. It was… Ah, hell, here’s the shot.

So, okay, it’s supposed to be a cowboy piece, and the group has put a new spin on it: hick. The dude isn’t even wearing shoes. All he’s missing is a piece of straw in his mouth.

But what’s happening in this photo? The band is still playing, but where did Daniel Schmidt, the conductor, go?

A little side note. The most effective part of Sasparilla is the tenor sax solo, where the tune is played vulgarly and sleazily. It’s supposed to sound like the cowboy has gone upstairs at the town brothel. The solo is fully-notated, and I usually prefer that the soloist play pretty close to what’s on the page, but make it sound improvised. When I heard the NAU recording, I was like, “hey, that’s not quite what it says on the page… wait a sec… okay, that part was better. Oh, and that part was better, too. This player is awesome. Damn, he’s tearing it up! This is the nastiest this solo has ever sounded! This rules!” Well, as it turns out, the reason Daniel left the podium for a minute was to go backstage — and get his tenor sax.

Yep, that’s the conductor taking the big tenor sax solo. How cool is that?! Daniel told me that his students had never heard him play before. I’m honored that he chose Sasparilla for his first solo appearance. So, a HUGE shout-out to Daniel Schmidt and his players at Northern Arizona University for this exciting, vulgar, screaming performance. (I mean, just check out the trombones!) I strongly encourage you to check out this recording.

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