Le Chat qui nage après Baker

for Sopranino Saxophone, Cello, Bass, Vibraphone, and Piano

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    James Farrell Vernon
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Le Chat qui nages après Baker (the cat who swims after Baker), is the 17th work in my “After” series (pieces written in the style of older composers who never wrote for instruments was commissioned by saxophonist James Farrell Vernon, a specialist on the sopranino saxophone. This small member of the saxophone family has relatively little literature written for it. The piece broke new ground for me in several ways. First of all, despite having written about 35 works for various members of the saxophone family, I’ve never written a solo work for this one. Then too, I’ve never written a work in such an overt jazz idiom. Of course, David Nathaniel Baker, in whose tribute this work has been written, is very well-known in both the jazz and classical worlds, having composed well over 2000 works of his own in idioms ranging from serial classical technique to bebop jazz. Much of his music is in Third Stream style, which is the model I used for the present work. I had the privilege of calling Baker (formerly head of the Department of Jazz Studies at the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University) a friend, and I had a great amount of respect for him as both a person and musician. He is the only composer I’ve imitated whom I knew personally, and his passing has affected everyone who knew him. The present work takes its title from one of Baker’s Third Stream works (for soprano, jazz combo and orchestra), Le Chat Qui Pêche (translated as the cat who fishes, but is actually the name of a Parisian jazz club). I began writing this three-movement work on June 3, 2020 and completed it on the 15th of the same month. I sought to personalize the piece for Vernon in several ways. First of all, the opening chord of the work is comprised solely from the music letters in his name, along with Baker’s and mine. Next, through the titles of the three movements. “Feral Cat” is obviously a pun on Vernon’s middle name (which is what he goes by to his friends). It begins slowly and soon launches into a section that has a syncopated bass line which leads into a cadenza for cello and sopranino which yields to a simple tune over a walking bass line. The work increases in intensity and rhythmic activity and winds up with a reiteration of its opening sonority. Movement two, “A Rose by Any Other Name,” is intended as a love song between Vernon and his wife, Rose, the latter being represented by the cello in the ensemble. Much of the movement consists of a musical dialog between the two instruments, although a livelier middle section can be considered to be their recollection of past memorable and humorous events in their life together. The work concludes with “Brody to the Sax,” a play on the valley-speak phrase “Grody to the max,” used to describe something very unpleasant. Here, however, my goal is not to exude un-pleasantries but to describe a musical conversation between Vernon and his bass-playing son, Brody. The movement consequently begins with a statement by the bass to the sax, who answers him and then a third statement involving the two of them that launches a fast movement with the tempo marking of “A bat out of hell.” Various combinations of the five instruments in the ensemble are heard throughout this movement, sometime alternating in quick fashion. My intention in this movement is to get the toes of the audience tapping, and give the performers a challenging and (I hope) fun work-out.

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