Music Review: Nashville Composer Collective makes auspicious debut

coffin-scoreSunday afternoon was the inaugural concert of the “Nashville Composer Collective,” and since I am a composer and a newly minted ArtsNash critic I swung by.  The event was held in the “Family Room” of the The Village Chapel, a non-denominational church that makes its home in the old St. Bernard Convent in Hillsboro Village. (Musicians may be interested to know that Béla Fleck and Edgar Meyer once recorded in the chapel.)

A few of the Flecktones were in attendance – Roy “Futureman” Wooten had a piece on the program, and Jeff Coffin was taking pictures.   I seemed to have missed the memo about young aspiring composers needing to wear skin-tight black pants, a style note that was not apparent when I visited New Amsterdam Records in Brooklyn.  I digress.

coffin-future6The room was overflowing with people, so the Collective should be quite pleased. This audience of nearly 120 was greatly bolstered by some 40 different performing musicians, in the seats, along the walls, and tuning in the hallway. The concert was presided over by Carl Marsh, who helped introduce each composer, fielded questions from the audience, and thanked notable patrons such as the Nashville Symphony and Belmont University’s School of Music. The program featured six pieces by Nashville composers John Darnall, Cole Dumas, Roy Wooten, Jeff Lisenby, Melanie Joy Parobek and Don Hart.

coffin-group3I’m unfamiliar with Darnall’s studio work, but his resume is typical of many Nashville composers. He has a background in legit music via Peabody College at Vanderbilt, but found a 40-year career in session work playing and scoring.   He deserves much for having gathered this group of composers together and for presenting such a successful inaugural event.  His entry on the program, “The Not-3-Chord Song,” was a cheery, light number for chamber strings, backed on marimba by Chris Norton.  As always, Norton’s playing was precise and brilliant, and Darnall is on to something about the pleasing combination of marimba and violin.

coffin-nortonThe second work on the program was Cole Dumas’ “Toccata and Jazz in D Minor,” an inventive reimagining of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in a chamber jazz style.  The players were good: Jeff Lisenby on accordion, Melanie Parobek on violin and John Darnall on guitar, among others. The opening was conventional: voices entered and exited with various familiar chunks of the melody.  I found myself wishing I could hear Phantom Regiment or the Blue Devils’ versions – infamous Drum Corps famous for melodramatic arrangements.

I love jazz composing.  Gil Evans and Bob Brookmeyer gave much to the musical universe we now live in. But the thread in jazz re-composition is in re-harmonization, and there was little of that Dumas’ piece.  Jazzing up Toccata & Fugue is a good idea and would fit in a light classical/classical-crossover show.  The piece really took off during Lisenby’s accordion solo.  Suddenly we were in a natural groove. Lisenby sounded great, Dumas was at home in his orchestration, and it felt like the underscore to a Pixar short. (I mean that as a high compliment.)

At the climax, when the high strings came back in, I could finally see this piece working on the bill of a symphony’s Halloween pops concert. More Mancini than Brookmeyer/Evans.  The third half really worked well, but the piece never found the door to the “Harmonic Universe Next Door.” I would love to see what happens if we went straight to the “Pixar” moment out of the introduction, then to the climax, and then to “points beyond” even Bach’s musical imagination.

coffin-future3Roy “Futureman” Wooten is a performer! He was a natural onstage setting up his piece.  It reminded me of Marsalis talking about a performance.  Sorrow Aria “Black & White Fantasy” is a follow up to Futureman’s Black Mozart project from a few years ago. It also focuses on Chevalier de Saint-Georges, a mixed race composer from the Age of Enlightenment.  Wooten has teamed with Gil Fray to craft this piece, and it was magnificent.  He opened with a trick he pulled from Duke Ellington’s bag: each musician chose three random notes, and wound up on the opening chord of the strongest piece so far on the program.  There seems to be a trend among contemporary neo-romantic composers: pairing pitched percussion with strings.  In this case it was steel pan drums, pizzicato strings, and plucked harp. The piece had consistent melodic and harmonic interest, expressed in inventive orchestrations.

The fourth work on the program was “Spy in Tortuga, an accordion tune by Jeff Lisenby featuring a scalar melody with lots of augmented seconds over a vibrant Latin romp.  I expected more overt Pirate references, but it turns out Lisenby actually does work on Turtle Island in the Caribbean.

coffin-group4Melanie Joy Parobek was the only composer to overtly use technology in her work – another attribute pointing to the post-romantic dialect of the afternoon.   “Answers” sought to combine elements of folk music traditions within a contemporary chamber composition, and one of the folk elements was a female vocal trio.  “Answers” came off well – not just legit players covering an Allison Kraus song, but an art music composer using the vocabulary of folk music to create something new.

The afternoon closed with a string suite by Don Hart, who is very clearly a string arranger in the tradition of the Nashville Sound.  This work may eventually wind up on a Christmas at Belmont show. I’m taking the “Instrument of Hope” to be a reference to the Nativity.   The man writes circles around me in the strings department: sweet, light, airy and deliciously complex.

coffin-melanieThe challenge for new music in Nashville is distinguishing between appearance of sonic artistry and actual musical significance.  Nashville studio music draws entirely on Romantic music: Chopin’s chords, Copland’s strings, Mahler’s brass… it is as if Ligeti, Koussevitzky, Warhol, Cage, Schaeffer, Stockhausen never existed… how do we handle this as a city?

In this way, Nashville is more akin to Vegas or Orlando than Charlotte or St. Louis.  We can’t ignore the commercial creativity that surrounds us and gives so much to our city’s identity,  but how we get beyond it into the international conversation surrounding our art forms?

Music like this would not be presented this way anywhere else in the world –  maybe Branson, Vegas or Orlando – and there’s something distinctly Nashville in that.  But there is a gap in musical vision between Nashville and what composers like Kenji Bunch, Adam Schoenberg and Johnny Greenwood are doing in other cities.  The challenge going forward is how to take our studio chops and engage with the art music world at large.

PHOTO CREDIT: All photos by Jeff Coffin

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About Kyle J. Baker

Kyle J. Baker is a Nashville-based composer and impresario most known for directing Nashville's Soundcrawl Festival. He composes for acoustic and digital forces with a recurring emphasis on rhythmic post-minimal structures. Classical in heritage, but vernacular in vocabulary, his music has garnered such attention as 2008 Belmont University Composition Prize, Honorable Mention in the 2008 Pathways Young Band Composition Contest as well as distribution by, His notable teachers include Ken Read, John LaBarbara, Delfeayo Marsalis and William Pursell. Born in Scotland and raised in St. Louis, Baker holds an M.Mus from Belmont University and makes his home in Cane Ridge, Tenn. with his wife Joy and cat Lili.


  1. A very well done and thoughtful article. Thanks for the review!