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Meadowlark - Talkin' Jazz and Dreams
By Ben Ohmart
(more articles from this author)
2001-05-06
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Meadowlark is more of a style than a band or ensemble. Dripping with clean, fresh jazz/classical/instrumental pop, they can also be called spiritual in the extreme. Music for passion. Music that travels.

When I reached the peak of the mountain top, here's the chat we had.

[Ben] A very beautiful album you've got here. Not having heard your previous releases though, how much does the current sound differ from your previous efforts?

Rick Cyge Thanks, Ben. FreeFall is a bit of a departure for us on a few counts. We've always worked with back up musicians on our recordings, usually world percussion, violin, mandolin, piano and keys. On FreeFall, our 4th release, we've expanded the cast of players to include soprano sax, drums, fretless bass and dobro as well. In all, this recording features 9 support musicians in addition to myself and my partner Lynn Trombetta.

Also, it marks the debut of myself on piano, both as composer and player. Although piano was my first instrument, learned on the lap of my paternal grandmother starting at age 5, I transitioned to the guitar at age 11 and piano became secondary. I continued to use it as an arranging and composing tool but never performed publicly on piano. This past year, Lynn convinced me to buy a baby grand and return to the piano that had been calling to me for years. "Gratitude" on FreeFall was written to her to thank her for reuniting me with my "first love."

Furthermore, FreeFall, while continuing on the path of melding various world influences as in our previous work, ventures into a more jazzy feel at times taking full advantage of the incredible talent that collaborated on this project. It was our first complete project with engineer/co-producer Clarke Rigsby who has worked with the likes of Paul McCartney, Tower of Power, and a cast of who's who. He brought tremendous insight and vision to our sound and worked in tandem with me to shape the sessions and explore new territories sonically and textually. He understood and appreciated my ideas and helped me raise the bar on our sights for this release.

[Ben] These tunes seem chock full of jazz motifs and other improvised sign posts. How much sweat does it take to rehearse, compose each song; and get it right for the mic?

Rick Good question. I don't consider Meadowlark a jazz artist but we tend to meander through several genres while creating our music. Certainly strains of improvisational passages and jazz sensibilities do weave through this particular collection of pieces, most notably, the first piece, "Eye to Eye, Heart to Heart," the title track, "FreeFall, and "Tan Man Dance." Much of the credit goes to the musicians I chose for the project. Frank Smith (sax and piano) is very well respected here in the Phoenix area as a terrific jazz pianist, and saxophonist. He's most at home on tenor but I coaxed him to brush up on soprano for "Prairie Serenade" and "Tan Man Dance." Todd Chuba is a very intuitive and creative drummer, at home in almost any genre from Rock to Jazz and really enjoyed the opportunity to explore new territories rhythmically on this project. I invited Kenny Skaggs ( member of Glen Campbell's band) to contribute dobro tracks to "Serengeti" and "Somebody Loves You." He surpassed my hopes and added tasty and memorable tracks to those two tunes. Keyboardist Andy Baade (also featured on our previous release, "Legend of the Land"), wrote and arranged a gorgeous orchestral prelude to my homage to my brother, "Somebody Loves You." Meadowlark veterans, Joe Garcia on world percussion and Allen Ames on violin, added depth and sparkle to the music as they always do. Basically, after laying down the basic tracks, I left ample space for concise but freeflowing solos from the guys. I believe in creating the space, communicating the concept and intent, and turning the players loose within that framework, especially on the solo areas.

[Ben] What do you call your music? What are the influences baked right in?

Rick We have been wrestling with the "name game" since our inception in 1993. I believe our music is a hybrid, deriving its unique personality from a plethora of sources. "We are what we eat"! I grew up in an era when the world has been continually "shrinking." With groundbreakers like Harry Belafonte, Miriam Makeba, Ravi Shankar, Pierre Bensusan, Paul Simon (Graceland), and Paul Winter's many incarnations, I, like the rest of my generation, have been exposed to music and art from cultures representing every remote corner of the globe. What an exciting time to live in! Mix all that ethnic "stew" with the many faceted American music scene (bluegrass, jazz, ragtime, rock, blues) and our European counterparts (classical, Celtic, British, French, etc - you get the picture) and you have this cauldron of "world eclecticism" rich in diversity and overwhelming with possibility! I am a product of that synthesis. Our music draws from most of those elements and inevitably combines them in a unique combination that becomes "the Meadowlark sound." All the traditional genre labels fall short of describing this phenomenon. We've been called "New Age," "Folk," "Contemporary Acoustic," "Celtic" (heavy Celtic influences do weave throughout our music) but really we are all and none of those. I've coined a phrase (or at least am under the misguided notion that I have!) called "New World Music." It's sort of a double entendre if you will. On the one hand it is a sort of world music but not the traditional ethnic music we've come to mean when we say world music - it's original, drawing influences from different cultures, hence New World Music. On the other hand, it is truly contemporary American Music written here and now (music of the 'New World').

Wouldn't it be great to actually create this genre and have it accepted as "New Age" was not so long ago? Artists like Shadowfax, Nightnoise, Paul Winter, Baka Beyond, Meadowlark, and the like that go genre hopping would have their own home. It would make for some very listenable radio programming, no? Well, I'll just have to look forward to the new genre catching on!

[Ben] The playing is quite professional. How long have you two been together? What's your history, separate and together?

Rick Thanks for the compliment. Lynn & I have been performing as Meadowlark since 1993. We started out playing mostly my arrangements of contemporary and traditional Celtic melodies. Then it dawned on me one day that for years I had been a struggling folk singer/guitarist and trying to be a songwriter and had only had marginal success writing songs - I was never satisfied with the lyrics. Here, with Lynn, I had a new "voice" to write for that didn't need words! Perfect! Well, literally overnight, I began writing for the two of us like a house on fire - I had been ignoring the melodies that had been 'dancing' around my head for years without lyrics and now found a new home for them in the guitar/flute partnership. It changed my life. In the next few years that followed I wrote and we recorded over 40 pieces and I still have enough finished and unfinished pieces for several more projects! Lynn has also begun writing and we have collaborated on several pieces as well.

Oh, our previous histories....the short version: I've been playing guitar almost 40 years now (did I give my age away?!). I was an active member of the Boston area folk and acoustic music scene throughout most of the 80's. I owned and ran a Music Center (Wood & Strings Music Center) outside of Boston that was a school for acoustic music, a guitar shop, a folk & acoustic CD shop, and Concert series. It was an exciting time to be in that scene. I was surrounded by an awesome sea of burgeoning talent: Shawn Colvin, John Gorka, Patty Larkin, Susanne Vega, Tracy Chapman - a who's who in the contemporary acoustic singer/songwriter scene. There was an active Celtic scene as well - long before Riverdance, Braveheart, and Titanic made it fashionable to be Irish. There was a constant flow of Ireland and Scotland's best musicians through the Boston area and it took my breath away. I fell in love with the soulfulness of the music and after hearing the genius of Pierre Bensusan, adopted the Celtic-based "DADGAD" guitar tuning as my "home" tuning. My sound started to evolve, combining Celtic influences and all my other influences into this "harplike" guitar tuning. It was a little known tuning in the American music scene at that time, mostly used by British and Celtic guitarists. It has more recently caught on a bit more with the current wave of singer/guitarists and solo guitarists. I moved to Arizona in 1988 and after a few years out here, met Lynn, my current music partner and more recently, my wife!

Lynn's background is quite a contrast. After studying flute throughout her childhood, she took a sabbatical from it to marry and raise a family. She returned to the flute about the time we met (much to my good fortune!). She's also been playing the pennywhistle most of her life (used to take her flute and whistles up into the canyon walls of Sedona, AZ and play, letting her lilting melodies drift through the canyons). In addition to music, Lynn's creativity manifests in other media. She is a visual artist (the cover art on our debut CD, "Dance of the Sandpiper" is one of her paintings) as well as a writer (currently planning to release a series of children's stories).

[Ben] Is there a special philosophy behind the music, or are you just naturally letting out what you feel?

Rick Yes and yes. There's a concept called entrainment - simply put, it is the tendency to resonate inside with the rhythms and melodies in our natural environment. For instance, when we take a long walk by the ocean and listen to the even pounding of the waves against the shore, we tend to slow down inside and get "in sync" with that tempo. There is an innate comfort in those "familiar" rhythms and "melodies" that touch us deep inside. In our modern world, we get too far away from those essential elements and silently long for them. The sound of rap music, jack hammers, traffic, computers, are quite in contrast to those rhythms and cause discomfort. Much of the music we compose is written in direct response to our experiences in nature. For instance, I wrote "Circle of Giants" on our previous CD, "Legend of the Land" after spending an afternoon walking deep in the redwood forest and soaking up that awesome energy - the only sounds to be heard were the rustling of pine needles in the breeze and the gentle creaking of the trees. I translated that experience into that piece of music. We try to mirror the rhythmic and melodic contours of our natural environment. Hence, it is quite common that our audiences experience this "entrainment" when we perform. Incidentally, our recording, "Legend of the Land" is a complication of pieces inspired by the Desert Southwest and beyond and our debut release, "Dance of the Sandpiper" draws most of its inspiration from the West Coast.

[Ben] It's hard not to come up with a political question when your music seems so at odds to the loud, in your face angst of present day musicology: therefore, what do you think of the world? (Big question, I know....) Inherently evil, system-atically screwed, worth saving, etc?

Rick Definitely worth saving (and conserving)!

I long for peace and tranquility and find it a rare commodity in the day to day bustle of our environment. I need regular contact with places quiet enough to hear the symphony of nature. I begin to get "cabin fever" when I stay in the city too long. Lynn & I are contemplating a move from the Phoenix area to the hills and pinion pines of northern Arizona where there is easy access to lakes and forests. The desert is beautiful but the Phoenix metropolitan area is fast eradicating most of the natural beauty of the desert - you have to travel well outside the city limits to experience it's grace now.

[Ben] Is it more difficult to sell instrumental 'new age', or is it an agreeable niche-genre market? Do handle the biz side yourselves?

Rick I think I touched on this above about genres. Although I don't really see us as "mainstream" New Age, until a new genre (New World Music or the like) is broadly accepted, the New Age market is the most open-minded and supportive of what we're doing. We do get air play on several folk and acoustic programs as well as the variety of New Age programs that air our music.

Yes, we do handle the business side ourselves. I think we're OK at it but am longing for the time when we can have professional assistance with it so we can turn more of our efforts towards making and performing the music and less towards selling and booking it. A manager who believes in our product, a marketing specialist with the connections and experience to market and promote our music, and a booking agent would be a terrific thing!

[Ben] Are you touring with the players on your album? Do you find the sound differing much from what you've laid down as studio tracks?

Rick Most of our touring has been as a duo or trio. It would be terrific to get a big enough budget to take the whole ensemble on the road. Here in the Valley, we perform as anything from a duo up to a 7 piece ensemble. We recently opened for David Lanz as a quartet with world percussion and keyboards. The sound basically remains the same. The additional players allow us to flesh out more of the intricate counterpoint and add sparkle and depth to the music. However, I write all our music for the duo first, then add the rest of the arrangement so, with few exceptions, we can perform almost our entire repertoire as a duo. While I love the synergy and excitement that happens with the ensemble, I also enjoy the simplicity, intimacy and magic of the duo. In the best scenario, I see a concert that features the ensemble with a mini-set that features a duo or trio.

[Ben] Since I assume everyone covers someone at live functions, who do you find yourself putting into flute & guitar form in front of your fans?

Rick Actually, almost our entire repertoire is original. We do occasional covers including the two covers on FreeFall, "Icarus" and "After the Fleadh." As a rule, our covers tend to be of contemporary and traditional Celtic melodies. Our 2nd release, "Spirit of the Season" features several covers that we felt captured the spirit of the winter solstice season. Actually that recording features only 3 original pieces.

[Ben] What are your dreams for the future?

Rick I'd like to do a recording of Meadowlark with a chamber orchestra or symphony orchestra. I'd like to write for film. My music is very visual and lends itself to the "soundtrack" idiom pretty naturally. We are currently working on organizing a series of workshops and seminars that we have done in the past on creativity and interpreting nature through music. We want to share our philosophies and experience with others. Of course, we'd like to get enough recognition through air play, etc., to be able to tour widely and perform for audiences of all sizes and mixes. Live performance is an incredible high!

Ultimately, through the sharing of our music and our ideas on creativity, we hope to encourage others to pursue their own dreams.

Thanks, Ben. I hope I've sufficiently answered your thoughtful questions!

www.meadowlarkmusic.com


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