“Every Note Is a Choice”: A Chat With Andrew D’Angelo
Andrew D'Angelo is an inspired composer and bandleader, and a pretty impressive singer as well. But it's as an instrumentalist that he truly shines, with a sound on alto saxophone and bass clarinet like no other. On a blindfold test, you can pick D'Angelo out in two notes; on the bandstand, he rivets you with one. He's also a particularly restless musician, eager to share different aspects of his musical vision and the experiences of having the right frontal lobe of his brain removed in 2008 due to cancer. In between rehearsals of his DNA Big Band for Saturday's performance at The Dunes (where he'll split the bill with D.C. steelpan drummer Victor Provost), D'Angelo participated in an e-mail interview with your strep-throat-stricken correspondent on his big-band vs. small-band music; thoughts about his second instrument, the bass clarinet; and making music before and after brain surgery.
Washington City Paper: So much of the work I've seen you do in small ensembles is very stark and lyrical, even low-key. But your big band swings like mad. Is there a conscious disconnect there?
Andrew D'Angelo: I would say there is not. In fact I feel as though my big band is an extension of my small group work. The large ensemble joins together to create a unified and powerful musical statement. Whether that statement is lyrical, swings or both. There is also the fact that I grew up playing in traditional big bands since the age of 13. That definitely has a huge influence on my writing for the band. A part of me is so tightly connected to Ellington and Basie that it comes out in my large ensemble works. Almost all of my big band music are arrangements of my small ensemble compositions (with few exceptions). So really there not only is no disconnect but rather a complete connection. The way the music is interpreted is different however. This is because I feel there is naturally a different approach when 13 people are interpreting music simultaneously.
It's similar to having a box of crayons. If you only have four colors in the box, your ability to use shades is limited. That doesn't mean you can't create something magnificent, and in fact, perhaps having to be even more creative when there are fewer colors to work with. But if the box is full of 100 colors, then of course, you can use all those colors to create something more complex. In my large ensemble work I use the musicians to create more complex expressions. Highlighting things I'd like to bring out in the music. And even sometimes using the colors of the larger format to cover up what I don't want people to see clearly.
If I was to make a proclamation such as, "We can change the world!" and I say that alone, it will have an impact of course. But if I can get 100 people to say that same phrase, it has an even greater impact. Working with larger groups of musicians gives me the ability to take what I am saying musically and give it more power. Ten men lifting a huge boulder is much easier than one.
WCP: On that subject, who will you be working with and why did you choose them?
AD: The personnel in the big band does vary slightly, depending on who is available. For this particular performance I have nine of the core musicians involved, including Josh Roseman, Bill McHenry, Jacob Wick, Josh Sinton, and Kirk Knuffke.
I work with them because they are dedicated and brilliant musicians. Josh Sinton plays the baritone saxophone chair in my band. I sometimes wonder how I could even do a show without him—purely dedicated to learning and performing the music. He has even helped arrange one of my compositions, "Egna Ot Waog." My lead trombonist Josh Roseman is one of the most powerful musicians alive. I met Josh back in the early nineties. One time we were getting ready to do a show and rehearsing at a studio in Brooklyn. Due to scheduling conflicts Roseman had to arrive late; when he showed up for the rehearsal about halfway through, the entire ambience of the room changed. To me music and art in general is as much about the creative expression as it is about the essence of the human creating it. Josh embodies 'all that is' when it comes to art. Truly inspirational on all levels.
Kirk Knuffke and Jacob Wick hold down the second and third trumpet parts in the band. It is important of course to have strong leaders in a group but it is equally important to have support from within. Jacob and Kirk are incredible improvisors. Also, their ability to blend when playing my written music is unparalleled. Kirk and I have spent many hours together at my house working on music and Jacob is a musician who has a greater understanding of life. Together they manifest pure synergistic art.
The tenor chair has been almost solely played by Bill McHenry. He just finished playing a week at the Village Vanguard with his quartet, which included Andrew Cyrille. Bill and I also did a stint at the Vanguard together but with Paul Motian. I met Bill when we both were in Boston for a few years back in 1991. This 20-year friendship, both on and off the stage, makes for an incredibly dynamic connection. When Bill plays, I listen and when I play, Bill is with me as deep as one could imagine.
It is the artists job to expand on awareness. That expansiveness is boosted by longevity. Experiential learning supports a greater awareness. Therefore the depth of my friendship with many of my band members is the reason I play with them.
WCP: You've said that your process as a composer has changed since your brain surgery a few years ago. Can you elaborate on that?
AD: It has changed, that's for sure. Sometimes I simply say this when I get asked this question: "If you had had your right frontal lobe removed, your process would change too!" The mere fact that my brain was altered could be the reason for the change in compositional process. But I also know that it is in part due to the fact that I took the path of greater awareness. Consciousness is something all of us are handed when the soul-personality enters the Earth frequency. Many choose to only use a small amount of the consciousness. Yet there is an infinite amount available. Having two brain surgeries helped me realize that there is a choice in life. A person can choose to live or die. Life is about choices and everything that we experience reflects those choices. That includes brain cancer or anything else. Since I knew on some level that I had chosen to invite brain cancer into my life, it meant I could choose for it to leave. My compositional process changed because I realized every note I pick is a choice.
Before brain surgery, I was scattered and sometimes unfocused. We could say that was for this reason or the other but in the end, I merely had trouble being balanced. It's no wonder, since for 10 years or so I had a tumor the size of a baseball in my brain. Having this growth taken out of my head was in and of itself a relief—creating more room for my compositional ideas. Never mind that as a part of my rehabilitation I began doing visualizations. These visualizations I do on a regular basis at this point. So composing is no longer about anything other than generating a contextual visual soundscape. I say my process has changed because up until brain surgery I had not even thought about the resulting imagery of my compositions. I simply would write them down because they were in my head. Now however, I am consciously aware of the effect my music is having on the listener, which means I am offering people to partake on a higher level—that is if they choose to do so.
WCP: Have you written any music about that experience? Will we hear any of it at The Dunes?
AD: I have written a lot of music about the experience! You will hear some at The Dunes, yes. It is in different ways that I express this experience though. There are compositions that specifically reflect going through brain cancer. One such composition is my arrangement of "Meg Nem Sa." Within the writing is the pain of hearing the words "you have cancer" along with the joy of knowing I wasn't going to die from it. Life is not all love, light and peace. And waking up in hospital ER hearing that my life was in danger helped me understand this, whether I was consciously ready for it or not.
There is another aspect of my reflection on brain cancer in my composing, which is healing. I am now writing music that is specifically written for healing purposes. One such song is "Felicia"; we will perform this at The Dunes as well. It is a piece I wrote for my close friend Felicia who is dealing with leukemia. The music is written with the color code medium green and the harmonies are written to redirect the cancer frequency. All of this is accomplished using color, tone, and archetype.
The third approach I have to expressing the brain experience is actually related to the energy of love. I composed a song when I was eight years of age. A simple melody I used to play on the piano. After the brain experience I revisited this melody and began playing it incessantly. I realized that as humans we really don't want to die; some even have a grave fear of death—yet many still choose to take their own life. It became apparent to me that in order to live through and surpass cancer I needed to love myself. At times it was difficult to do this. So what I did was arrange a song that I had written when I was a young boy. This piece of music is now called "I Love You." It is not about loving a parent, boyfriend/girlfriend, or other person, but about loving oneself...loving oneself enough to not die.
An interesting aspect of this process is if you turn the number 8 on its' side you get the infinity symbol. The infiniteness of life is there for all to access. "I Love You" is an expression of that desire to access all that is.
WCP: You do superlative work on bass clarinet; is that an instrument you're exploring more?
AD: I simply LOVE the bass clarinet! Most recently I have composed a piece for 13 clarinets. It incorporates almost the entire clarinet family: A and Bb clarinet, alto clarinet, basset Horn, bass clarinet, contralto clarinet, and contrabass clarinet. It is my clarinet big band! I'm also working on a solo recording which is a situation where I play bass clarinet and my saxophone on the same track. There will also be tracks that include several overdubs of bass clarinet. I am using this opportunity to explore the outer dimensions of that instrument. It seems the sky is the limit with that horn!
Photo: Davide Leonardi.