UIC Music Teacher’s Classic Album Highlights Forgotten Works by Chicago-Linked Composer
When Andy Baker, an assistant clinical professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, came up with the idea to record Leo Sowerby’s early work, he never realized it would require him to undertake the expert sleuth. of a detective.
While Sowerby was a well-known composer for his mid-20th century church music when based at St. James’s Cathedral in Chicago, Baker was drawn to Sowerby’s unregistered classical pieces commissioned in the 1920s. to be performed by a jazz ensemble.
With partial funding from the UIC’s Awards for Creative Activity program, the Chicago conductor-trombonist got to work and formed the Andy Baker Orchestra, which included several colleagues and alumni of the UIC School of Music. , and recorded Sowerby’s “Synconata” and his Symphony for Jazz Orchestra, “Monotony”.
The resulting album, “Leo Sowerby: Paul Whiteman Commissions and Other Early Works,” was recently released by Chicago-based Cedille Records – which also helped fund the effort – with rave reviews, including its debut at No. 3 on the Billboard Traditional Albums chart. and # 10 on the Amazon Classical list.
“Sowerby is an important American composer, and these are major works of his early career that have never been recorded,” said Baker. “It was a bit of a detective job putting these scores and parts together and figuring out what was going on because the music had been played almost a hundred years ago and then put in a box.”
The pieces were originally commissioned by conductor Paul Whiteman to create a repertoire for his “Revolutionary Concerts” series whose commissions concurrently funded George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”. Gershwin’s Classical and Synconata were both written in 1924, and Sowerby’s Four Movement Symphony for Jazz Orchestra, “Monotony,” followed in 1925.
After the New York premiere of “Synconata”, which Baker notes that one reviewer hailed as a more important piece than “Rhapsody in Blue,” the larger “Monotony” followed with its world premiere in Chicago.
The impetus to unearth these forgotten works began for Baker shortly after he joined UIC in 2012 and began discussing Sowerby with Francis Crociata, president of the Sowerby Foundation, with whom he is linked by alliance. . While Sowerby was dubbed the “dean of American religious music,” had won a Pulitzer Prize for music in 1946, and whose music was often performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Baker’s interest was more jazz. esoteric and the classic Sowerby connection.
Baker, born and raised in London, appeared on recordings and television shows at the age of 18 and toured Europe with the Ray Gelato Giants before moving to Chicago, where he joined the Jon Faddis. ‘Chicago Jazz Ensemble from 2006 to 2012 and has been a principal member of the Fulcrum Point New Music Project since 2010. In the early 2000s, Baker joined the faculties of Northwestern University and Elmhurst College and co-founded the groups BakerzMillion and the New Standard Jazz Orchestra. Returning to school to pursue his interests in education and composition, Baker obtained a Masters degree from DePaul University and then joined the UIC faculty full time.
Once Baker decided on the project, he had to try to find the musical scores – not an easy task due to the lack of published editions, including a final interpretive edition.
“None of these works had ever been recorded or performed professionally outside of the Whiteman ensemble,” Baker said. “A lot of the decisions I had to make were about how much jazz phrasing would be involved, especially in terms of swing rhythms and idioms. “
He managed to find the scores for “Synconata” and “Monotony” at Northwestern University, which listed the parts that often conflicted with the scores. Sowerby then produced a “Synconata” version for two pianos.
While the orchestral version “Synconata” had not been professionally recorded, a student performance was recorded at Northwestern University, but this version lacked a key first trumpet because the student who was to play on the piece was involved in a car accident on the way to the performance, Baker found out.
“There were handwritten scores and handwritten parts of the original performances, but there were a lot of changes shown in the scores and different kinds of changes in the parts of the performance,” Baker said. “I just tried to put it all together and figure out how to make the music work and make it all line up and make sense, and then see how we could record it.”
Likewise, he struggled to find a full score for Symphony for Jazz Orchestra, “Monotony”. The original design of this symphony included sets that called out a 6 foot tall metronome on the stage while the music played. Other sets included by Sowerby called for costumes, bells, and women holding up signs with the names of the four movements and walking across the stage as if to announce different rounds of a boxing match. Baker rejected all of these instructions.
The piece was also designed with constant momentum from start to finish throughout the duration of the piece, hence its name “Monotony”.
“The idea of having something with a constant pulse for 20 minutes just isn’t interesting musically. He needs to breathe,” Baker said. “Looking at the sheet music and thinking about the music, this one- he immediately went out the window. “
In January 2020, during the UIC winter break and before COVID-19 blocked the music and recording rooms, he formed the Andy Baker Orchestra and recorded the album, which included colleagues from UIC School of Theater and Music: Ivana Bukvich, Kelly Langenberg, John Gaudette and Reed Capshaw. He also brought in UIC students Ephraim Champion and Vicki Beck to perform on the recording.
While the original goal was to supplement the album with other unregistered works by Sowerby for large ensembles, those plans had to be scrapped when COVID-19 shut down the orchestra – which ranged from 38 to around 45 musicians. – to meet in complete safety. Instead, the rest of the album consisted of smaller string pieces performed by a quartet that had been in residence at Northern Illinois University.
With the success of this album, Baker plans to record other tracks with his orchestra when it is safe to do so.
“I am delighted that he has received such good reviews; it’s exciting. You never know how something will land, ”Baker said.
Buy or stream Leo Sowerby: Paul Whiteman Commissions and Other Early Works.