The recording of 'Yellow Bell / Svadharma' CD

The birth of the project

This CD was the beginning of my explorations fusing World Music with Jazz. It is on this recording that I began using new forms (for me anyway) and instruments from Asia, Africa, and South America with the traditional western instruments used in Jazz. In addition to these new forms I felt a new freedom to explore the spirituality of my music. The Sanskrit word Svadharma is the marriage of two shorter Sanskrit words: Sva means "me" or "my" and dharma means "spiritual work or endeavor". So for me Svadharma means "my spiritual work" - music from the spirit. I had by this time also begun serious studies in Yoga. The opening Mantra on the CD 'On Namo Guru Dev Namo' comes from Kundalini Yoga.

As it happened, this CD was recorded over a period of several years, reflecting spurts of creativity and financial capability. The first series of sessions involved a larger group and was recorded live with a few overdubs. These sessions resulted in 'Bell Peace', 'Dharana', 'Yellow Bell Pop', 'Sea gospel', and 'Reprise (Dharana)'.

I called eight of the best musicians I knew together and had a rehearsal with no music or any preconceived pieces. In the past most of us had performed original music of theirs or mine, or perhaps from the Jazz repertoire. What we mostly had in common was that we improvised our music on one level or another.

The musicians were: Pianist Michael Gerber, Vocalist Jill Burton, Percussionists Doug Floyd and Joe Zeytoonian (also on Oud), Electric Bassist Randy Ward and Acoustic Bassist Bill Pace, Drummers Tom Lee and Jeff Abbott. Most of these musicians I had played with previously. Some for years (Michael, Joe, Randy, Bill, Tom, Jeff), and two I had only recently met (Jill, and Doug).

I wanted to work with a large ensemble of improvisers playing free on structures that allowed for a musical conversation within the group. I grew up listening to the free jazz of the 60's but wasn't interested in trying to recreate that music. I wanted to work with a little more structure than that as far as melody and rhythm but wanted to find something that would feel less restricting to the group than written, preconceived pieces.

One of the ideas I felt was important and often neglected in free music was space. I was interested in seeing what could happen if there wasn't a frantic race to play as densely as possible. I was looking for a relaxed atmosphere of listening to each other. I felt we were very successful at this in the recording of "Bell Peace" and somewhat in "Sea Gospel".

Another aspect of this project that I had long wanted to try was the instrumentation. Using two sets of Basses and Drums and including hand percussion, and vocalize added some possibilities of more freedom for the music. One or both Bassists could be playing a supportive melody and the vocals without lyrics could also float as an instrument.

The last concept I was interested in trying was conceiving the pieces orally with the group as a whole - not dictating every note and chord but just agreeing with each player on his/her role and perhaps an event or two to accomplish during the piece. The rest was to be found in the moment.

The first attempts

We had two rehearsals. The first was wild. It was a complete disaster and I imagine everyone left wondering what I could possibly think I was doing! I was more than a little disappointed too! But from the ashes of that first meeting I began to formulate my own way of working with an ensemble by giving them "roles" to play - not sheets of paper to look at.

After thinking for a few weeks about what had and had not happened at that first meeting, I called everyone again and asked them to come back and try one more time. I think only four or five actually showed up to play. The second rehearsal was even worse than the first and we all left shaking our heads. A few more weeks passed and when I called to ask all eight if they would come to a recording session I could hear the amazement and disbelief in some of their voices! For some reason they agreed (I did have to convince one or two it would be worth it)!

The first recording session

At the recording session we took two hours just to mic the pair of drum sets - one in a glass-enclosed room and one surrounded with baffles in the main room. We finished the rest of the preparations and I went over the first piece with each musician and then we talked as a group about what we were about to try and put on tape. Certain events were to take place on cue and certain people had specific functions. I played the scale I wanted for the piece and we discussed the overall arc of the piece. They were all asked to watch me for the few cues I had in mind.

After some preliminary sound checks for everyone I told Mike Fortier, the engineer, to let the tape roll and I told the musicians we would rehearse while Mike worked on the balance. The result was an amazing first take of Bell Peace. Not only was it the first take - it was the first time we had played the piece. This is the only time this piece was performed.

Later I asked vocalist Jill Burton to sing with me and overdub some lines in unison with what I had played on Soprano Saxophone that first take. Doug Floyd and I also added some hand percussion, and Flamenco dancers Damaris Ferrer and Leah Black added footwork and hand claps.

The other cuts from that night were "Dharana", "Sea Gospel", "Reprise (Dharana)" and "Yellow Bell Pop". As the evening progressed and the ensemble got smaller (by design) I thanked the musicians and expressed my wonder at what we had done. Something as special as that night can't be predicted - it was amazing to me that anyone even showed up after those two rehearsals, and even more amazing was the energy and communication that took place the night of the recording.

Years Later

After recording and releasing the CD "Yellow Bell / bamboo dynasty" I recorded some other pieces with Michael Moses (percussion), Nicole Yarling (Vocals and Violin), Fred Hsia (Guitar and Electric Bass), Joe Zeytoonian (Oud and vocals), David Wertman (Acoustic Bass), and Abbey Rader (Drums). I also at this time recorded the opening Mantra for the CD.

I realized what a nice balance these new pieces would be for the first sessions with the large ensemble. I called Amit Chaterjee (Sitar and Vocals) to do a couple of overdubs and it seemed I finally had finished the first Yellow Bell project "Svadharma" - after finishing the second Yellow Bell CD (bamboo dynasty) first.

Read the complete review, and about the compositions, and musicians and instrumentation of 'Svadharma'.