February 5, 1995

Rearranging Metheny In Converting Modern, Electric Jazz Into Big Band Music, Liberty Lake Composer Bob Curnow Created Something Entirely New

Don Adair Correspondent
 
Tags:profile

Bob Curnow sits in the studio/office of his Liberty Lake home and promotes the cause of big band music.

Soft-spoken and scholarly, nothing about him indicates that Curnow spent a decade uncovering the big-band heart that beats within the electronic jazz of Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays.

But sometimes it takes an introspective fellow like Curnow to see connections others overlook and, as if magically, he listened to the guitars and synthesizers of Metheny and Mays and heard trombones and saxophones.

The result was released last September, a remarkable CD called “The Music of Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays,” as performed by Bob Curnow’s L.A. Big Band.

If you thought big band music was a relic, this record will adjust your attitude. But that’s the business Curnow is in.

Back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, he played trombone and arranged music for Stan Kenton, one of the giants among big band leaders. For a time, he ran Kenton’s Creative World Records.

Today, Curnow has his own company, Sierra Music Publications. He writes and arranges big band scores and transcribes other writers’ music. His work circulates in the network of student and community big bands that keep the music alive.

Riffle through Sierra Music’s catalog and you’ll see familiar names from the big band world - Kenton, Maynard Ferguson, Bill Holman, Les Hooper.

It’s not the sort of place where you expect to encounter a name like Pat Metheny, but, like an electronic wraith haunting an acoustic world, there it is.

Metheny is a jazz guitar player whose arsenal of electronic gadgetry would fill a small warehouse.

Likewise, his co-writer, musical partner and keyboard player, Lyle Mays, could keep an electrical supply company in business.

Metheny and Mays are the heart of the Pat Metheny Group, which makes electric jazz that rock audiences love as much as jazzers do, maybe more.

But jazz is remarkably elastic music - its emphasis on spontaneity and individual expression attracts a diverse crowd - and, as unlikely as it may seem, big-band maven Bob Curnow has become a first-rate interpreter of the music of Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays.

Last year, Curnow went into a Los Angeles studio with nearly 20 of L.A.’s best jazz musicians and recorded a dozen of his own arrangements of the music of Metheny and Mays.

The CD was one of the surprises of 1994. Featuring Curnow’s bold arrangements and such name players as Bobby Shew, Bob Sheppard, Buddy Childers, Bill Cunliffe and Steve Houghton, it breathed new life into the big band scene.

“Is it us or are big band records suddenly getting more exciting these days?” asked the Gavin Report, a radio tip sheet, in its October review.

Boston Globe critic Bob Blumenthal wrote, “Curnow has done a magnificent job of writing arrangements that retain the integrity of the originals without in any way deviating from the big band tradition he knows so well.”

Maybe the CD shouldn’t be a surprise to those who have followed Curnow’s career - in 1989, he conducted the Spokane Jazz Orchestra through a stunning version of his arrangement of the Metheny/Mays composition, “The First Circle.”

And Curnow had brushed up against pop music as a Kenton arranger when he reworked the music of Chicago and Blood, Sweat and Tears for the big band.

But the relationship between the low-key big band arranger and the brash, young Metheny/Mays team is certainly from out in left field.

Oddly, Curnow was put off at first by Metheny and Mays.

“I didn’t like it when I first heard it,” he said bluntly in an interview at his home office.

But son Rob was struggling to learn to play Metheny’s music on guitar, and in trying to help him get a handle on the music, Curnow began to hear something else at work.

He dug into one song in particular, a Metheny ballad called “If I Could,” and he recalls hearing a melody that was “in my view so beautiful, yet so simple - so simply constructed - that it really intrigued me and it made me think a lot about Pat’s composing.

“More than the composition, I began to think about Pat and what’s going on with this guy that he can create such a simple melody that’s so lyrical and so beautiful, so melodious, in that culture, so to speak.”

Metheny’s use of unorthodox harmonies and unpredictable chord progressions piqued Curnow’s composer’s curiosity, and his blossoming interest set off a 10-year process that culminated in last year’s CD.

At first, Curnow transcribed several songs for his own interest; then, because this is what he does, he started writing arrangements for big band.

Three years ago, Curnow attended a reunion of the Kenton orchestra where he met a fellow named Gene Czerwinski.

Czerwinski was the mastermind behind the Cerwin-Vega Company, a famous builder of high-fidelity stereo components, and he now runs the non-profit MAMA Foundation, which exists largely to preserve big band music.

“He was a fan of Kenton’s later years and of some of the music we’d written,” Curnow said.

“One of his key questions was, `What do you think Stan’s band would sound like today if he were still alive?’

“I said, in my arrogant way, `I know exactly what it would sound like.’

“I think I do,” Curnow continued. “I’ve always written with that band in mind. Not consciously, perhaps, but it’s so inbred in my writing style, in my soul.”

Curnow sent Czerwinski a tape and the project was airborne.

But writing music and getting it on disc are two different things, and Curnow, who had been out of the L.A. scene for several years, had to get a band together. Fortunately, luck and his good reputation were on his side.

Curnow was showing his Sierra Music wares at a Boston music educators conference when noted trumpet player Bobby Shew dropped by his booth. Curnow floated the idea of the Metheny/ Mays big band project past him and Shew lept at it.

“I said, `Well, since you’re being so gracious about it, do you want to pick the trumpet section?’

“He said, `Hell, yeah, let me pick the whole band!”’

Drummer Steve Houghton assembled the rhythm section, and the group went into the studio for a day of rehearsal last March.

“Everbody kept their music for three weeks, and they knew then what the challenge was - and it was a challenge,” Curnow said. “They didn’t play this stuff flawlessly by any means.” Another two full days of rehearsal preceded four days of recording at MAMA’s Los Angeles studio, and “The Music of Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays” was on the record.

Today, when Curnow listens back to the product of 10 years of his life, what thrills him most is the inarguably high level of the individual performances.

“A lot of what ended up chilling me were the individual solos. There was Bobby Shew’s ballad (`Always and Forever’) and Bob Sheppard’s soprano solo on `First Circle’ … (Bill) Cunliff’s solo on `(It’s Just) Talk’ is so tasteful - (it’s) things like that, the things you don’t write down that you hope will happen.

“Of course, you don’t have any real design on that because you don’t know what’s gonna happen - that’s the great thing about this music. And what these individual players can bring to the music.”

Curnow hasn’t heard directly from Metheny or Mays, but the March issue of Mix magazine will have an interview with Metheny lauding the effort, and Curnow is pleased that Mays sent word through an intermediary: “Lyle Mays’ comment on this album that I will cherish is, `Tell Bob that he got it.”’


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