Month: September 2017

Three trips: music, friends, and faith

Three trips: music, friends, and faith

The last few months have been full of travel, as I’ve criss-crossed the United States several times to play and speak at a number of events. It is times like this that are very refreshing and invigorating to me, as I get to be with other fine musicians and make music at a high level. At the same time, my conversations with others are always very rich, and when I come home, I find myself energized and grateful for the blessing of a life lived with music.

The first of these three tripe was to the International Trombone Festival (June 27-July 1), which was held at University of Redlands, California. As I mentioned earlier in this blog, I played duets with three friends: Jim Markey (bass trombonist of the Boston Symphony), Megumi Kanda (principal trombonist of the Milwaukee Symphony), and Gerry Pagano (bass trombonist of the Saint Louis Symphony). In addition, Megumi and I gave a class titled The One Hundred: Effective Strategies for Successful Audition Preparation.

[From top left, clockwise: Douglas Yeo with Megumi Kanda, Gerry Pagano, Bill Watrous, Jennifer Wharton]

Part of the fun of being at these kinds of events is meeting up with old friends. I ran into jazz great, Bill Watrous, while walking through the vendor area at the ITF. Bill was tremendously influential on me – and countless other players – when I first hear him on his Manhattan Wildlife Refuge recording in 1975; have a listen to his iconic and influential performance of Fourth Floor Walk-Up. Years later, we began a friendship that, interestingly enough, does not center around jazz. Rather, when we speak on the phone, Bill always wants to talk about classical music, especially Edward Elgar. Bill is expertly conversant in classical music, something that may come as a surprise to many who know him as a jazz trombone icon. I recall hearing him give a clinic at Lexington High School in Massachusetts (the town in which my wife and I lived from 1985-2012 when I was a member of the Boston Symphony) where he played Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings on trombone using multiphonics. To say his performance was stunning is a profound understatement.

I also got to meet up with my former student, Jennifer Wharton, who was at the ITF to play in the XO All Stars jazz trombone quartet. Jen is a remarkable person and player, living in New York City with her husband, John Fedchock, playing a Broadway show, teaching, and freelancing. Jen is one of the most positive and engaging people I’ve ever met, and having time to meet up with her, have some conversation and a meal together, and play duets was a real joy.


While on my way to Redlands, I stopped off at Joshua Tree National Park in California to purchase my National Parks Lifetime Senior Pass. Getting older bring with it some challenges, for sure, but my first “senior discount” after turning 62 this past May was this Pass, a real deal for $10.00; I got mine just before the fee changed to $80.00. Going to National Parks is a real passion for my wife and me, and to hold this lifetime pass in my hand was a moment that made me smile. More on our recent trip to five National Parks in a future post on The Last Trombone.


[Scott Robinson, ophicleide; Douglas Yeo with serpent by Keith Rogers]

Just a few days after the ITF in California, I flew to New York City for the Third Historic Brass Symposium (July 12-14). This time I didn’t have a trombone in my hand. Rather, I brought along a serpent, for I was at the Symposium to premiere a new duet for serpent and ophicleide commissioned by the Historic Brass Society, Caduceus Mixtus, by Jaron Lanier. My partner for the duet was Scott Robinson, known mostly for his superb playing on saxophone, but he also plays ophicleide. The piece was difficult, interesting, and rewarding to play, and our performance at New York University happened to be in the same recital hall where I gave my two graduate recitals when I was a student at NYU for my master’s degree back in 1979. For this performance I used a serpent made by the late Keith Rogers that was entrusted to me by his wife, Kathryn, after Keith’s death in 2008. It is made of plum wood and covered with a (pre-ban) python skin. It seemed to be the right instrument to use for a piece that had as part of its inspiration, the caduceus, with its intertwined snakes.


In addition to hearing scholars present exceptionally interesting papers at the Symposium, we enjoyed a day of papers and concerts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Museum is one of my favorite places in the world, having grown up in and around New York City and then returning there after I graduated from Wheaton College, from 1976-1979. The musical instrument gallery of the Museum is closed for a complete renovation, but we were given a preview of the construction and also saw some of the Museum’s new acquisitions, including a Baudouin serpent and the Bellophone, a combination tuba and euphonium that was made for the legendary tuba player, Bill Bell, by the H.N. White company.

We also got an up close look at a stunning new installation on the balcony between the two rooms of musical instruments, Fanfare, that features about 60 brasswind instruments. It is an exceptional installation and to have the opportunity to be among the first to see it up close was a real privilege.


I also had time to view some of my favorite works of art at the Museum, including Rembrandt’s Aristotle With a Bust of Homer, a beautiful stained glass window, Autumn Landscape, by Tiffany Studios, and several sculptures by one of my favorite artists, Daniel Chester French. His Angel of Death and the Sculptor and Mourning Victory are displayed in the Museum as marble copies made by French of his bronze cemetery monuments that I discuss in my website resource, Daniel Chester French: Sculpture in Situ.

[From top, clockwise from left: Rembrandt, Aristotle With a Bust of Homer; Tiffany Studios Autumn Landscape; Daniel Chester French, Mourning Victory and The Angel of Death and the Sculptor]

While in New York, there was one thing I wanted to see that was not connected to the Symposium: the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. Anyone alive on September 11, 2001, remembers that horrific, difficult day; the world has never been the same since. Having been up the World Trade Center tower many times, its destruction hit me, as it did many others, very hard. Going to the 9/11 Memorial and Museum was a very strong, powerful experience. To see wreckage of the Twin Towers and a crushed fire truck up close is something I will always carry with me, even as I admired the new building, 1 World Trade Center (originally nicknamed the “Freedom Tower”), that has arisen to the height of 1,776 feet and now is a new icon in the New York Skyline. The fountains that form the memorial, covering the original footprints of the World Trade Center towers, are a powerful and moving thing to behold.

But there was an unexpected surprise. As I came out of the subway to go to the Memorial and Museum, there was a new shopping center, Oculus, that featured a remarkable display of images from the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican in Rome. In nearly life size, enormous photographs of the ceiling and altar wall were on display. I found this to be serendipitous, since my wife and I will be soon be traveling to Rome and we will see the Sistine Chapel with our own eyes. To walk around this installation and see Michaelangelo’s  frescos of the ceiling of the Chapel up close was a delightful surprise.


On to the third trip.

Just last week, I was back on the east coast, at Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina, to perform at two programs that focused on theology and music (August 30-September 2).


These were led by Dr. Jeremy Begbie, professor of theology at Duke Divinity School. Last year, about a dozen musicians took part in the first of these kinds of events, sponsored by Duke Initiatives in Theology and the Arts. After the success of that event, a much large scale offering was planned for this year, with over 30 musicians invited to take part in the events.

A concert at Duke’s Nasher Museum of Art was in conjunction with a new exhibition, The Medici’s Painter: Carlo Dolci and 17th-Century Florence. The exhibition was revelatory, and at the evening’s program that included two fascinating lectures about Dolci and his work, our group of eight brass players performed two Italian Renaissance works while a chamber music group played as part of two lectures and also performed the first movement of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto 2. If you find yourself in the Durham area soon, I urge you to visit this superb exhibit at the Nasher.

[Carlo Dolci, Virgin and Child, late 1640s. Collection of The Bob Jones University Museum & Gallery, Greenville, South Carolina, installed at The Nasher Museum, Duke University]

The players at these DITA events are all Christians and come from symphony orchestras and universities from around the United States. Working with these like-minded colleagues was pure joy, and our playing, meals together, and conversations were invigorating. After the program at the Nasher, we took a photo of current and former members of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra who were participating in the program. Here you can see me (I played bass trombone in the Baltimore Symphony from 1981-1985), Rebekah Edewards (now a violist with the Boston Symphony), and current principal trumpeter Andrew Ballio and second trumpeter, Nate Hepler.


[Left to right: Douglas Yeo, Rebekah Edewards, Andrew Ballio, Nate Hepler]

As to the trombone section for the events, I was reunited with Megumi Kanda and Jim Kraft, who for many years played trombone in the National Symphony in Washington, D.C. A concert with what was named The New Caritas Orchestra was titled, Home, Away, & Home Again: The Rhythm of the Gospel in Music. Led by Jeremy Begbie – who made insightful and powerful comments throughout the evening and also was a superb piano soloist in works by Rachmaninoff and Shostakovich – the concert was a benefit for The Corner House in Durham, a house where disabled and non-disabled people live together in community. The House is supported by Reality Ministries, and it was truly beautiful to see residents of the house at the concert, and hear some of them speak and others play percussion instruments with us on the final piece on the program. It was a moving, joyful time.


[Left to right: Douglas Yeo, Megumi Kanda, Jim Kraft]

At the request of those of us who played the DITA event in 2016, a seminar was given for the orchestra members on Saturday morning, led by Jeremy Begbie (whose book Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music is one of the finest I’ve ever read about the intersection of music with the Christian faith) and Alan Torrance. I confess that the three hours spent in this seminar were revelatory. Alan’s presentation on God’s covenant relationship with His people – especially his unpacking of Hebrew words and how they, over time, were poorly translated into Latin and then to English, something that has had an important effect on our understanding of God’s covenant-– and Jeremy’s discussion on the Holy Trinity have given me much to think about and meditate on. God was at work at Duke Divinity School last week and I left there refreshed and challenged.

Three trips in just a few weeks (and another, much longer trip in the middle of these trips about which I will write soon), back and forth over our great country, from sea to shining sea. Music, friends, and faith.

Trust. Risk. Reward.

Trust. Risk. Reward.

Gerry Pagano and I met in the summer of 1987, when I was Bass Trombonist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and he was a Fellow at the Tanglewood Music Center.  As Bass Trombonist of the Saint Louis Symphony since 1995 , he is a superb player and a quality person, and over the years, we’ve kept in contact and we’ve followed each other’s careers, although we didn’t have an opportunity to meet up again until 2014. At that time, Gerry came to Arizona to collaborate on a recording project with his friend, jazz trombonist – jazz alto trombonist, actually – Mike Lake, on an album that became Roads Less Traveled. Since he was going to be in the area, I invited Gerry to come to Arizona State University to give a masterclass – I was, at that time, ASU’s Trombone Professor. To start off the class, Gerry and I performed Tommy Pederson’s duet, The Crimson Collop, and later that day, returned to my office, made a video recording of that piece, and posted it on YouTube. It’s received over 21,000 views.

Such was the seed that led Gerry and me to come together earlier in this month to record a new album of duets for bass trombone. In light of the popularity of our The Crimson Collop video, we thought it might be fun to record all of the bass trombone duets written by Tommy Pederson. But as we continued talking about it, we decided a more diverse selection of repertoire might be more interesting; we then both started bringing other repertoire ideas to the table. Plenty of Pederson, of course, but also Renaissance duets, a canon by Telemann and some Bartok violin duets. Gerry suggested a movement from Bach’s Concerto for two violins in d minor, a piece I hadn’t played since I was an undergraduate at Wheaton College in the early 70s. But we needed more music.

It was at that point that Gerry began talking more about Mike Lake. Early in our conversations, Gerry suggested Mike as our recording engineer since Mike has a studio in Arizona. While I knew of Mike, I couldn’t say that I knew him, but I was happy to take Gerry’s suggestion to involve Mike in the project; we did, after all, need a recording engineer and if Gerry had already worked with Mike – in fact, they have known each other for many decades, having been roommates for a time – that was fine with me. As our conversations continued, Gerry began proposing more involvement for Mike, such as the possibility that Mike might play trombone on something on the album. Gerry also also talked about how Mike could “add things” to some tracks. I honestly didn’t know where this was going. Having made many solo recordings myself over the years, I had a very clear idea of the kinds of things I wanted this new album to be about, and I was used to being the one who put forth ideas and called the shots. What Gerry was proposing was uncharted territory for me. Gerry was asking me to trust him and Mike, and take some risks as ideas kept flowing.

And, so, I offered trust and embraced the risk. Then began new conversations of ideas from Mike. Overdubbing ourselves on some pieces, adding different sounds as background in some cases, both musical and non-musical textures and treatments. Acoustic, recorded, and computer generated things. Percussion, voices, Hammond organ, sound effects, synthesizer, harpsichord. Mike offered to compose a piece for Gerry and me, one that would feature him improvising for a chorus, and he asked if I also could improvise – on  serpent – on his tune. Things were moving at the speed of light and I felt caught up in a tsunami – a constant, relentless push – of ideas. Having given Mike my trust, I went with it to see what would happen.

Trust can lead to risk, and risk can bring unexpected rewards. And that is where I stand today. After three days of recording sessions – days that included filming a music video in the Sonoran Desert about this project with the help of Mike’s drone – we are in the process of evaluating Mike’s editing of the tracks and seeing where things lead. Last night, Mike sent along the first edit of Tommy Pederson’s duet, Rumble on 6th Street. It’s a dramatic piece that always seemed to me to be about a fight, like the rumble in Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story. Prelude, call to arms, sizing up of each side with a tentative dance, conflict, pulling back, fighting again, and then finally retreating in ambiguity. Having trusted Mike’s judgment in several other things he had suggested, it was time for me to put an idea on the table: What about putting some street sounds at the beginning of the duet, sounds that would bring the listener in with anticipation to Gerry’s and my playing of the duet? Knowing Tommy Pederson (1920-1998) as I did from our many phone conversations and letters, I thought that if Tommy was alive, he would embrace something outside the box like this. I pitched the idea to Mike and he ran. He ran fast. His creativity exploded, and yesterday, he sent us the first edit of his enhanced track to Tommy’s great duet.

I was stunned by what I heard. Mike found some recordings of urban street sounds. He put them together: shouting, cars, sirens, frenzied screams, trucks. The sound of thunder, a man yelling, “Put that down! Put that down!” A faint, musical drone of voices emerged as Gerry and I began to play. And then the most shocking thing. As the duet ended, I became aware once again of the intensity of the street sound. Then, suddenly, more thunder and, finally a heavy rain, before everything faded away with a final sound of a police siren. It was shocking. It was like the rain came to wash everything away. Did the rumble happen? Did the police get there? Who won? Did we even play? Blood was washed away, footprints disappeared. Evidence was gone. Tommy’s ambiguous final cadence gave way to the strong, cleansing rain.

In this version of our recording of Rumble on 6th Street, which you can hear by clicking the play button above, Gerry is playing the top part (left channel) and I am playing the bottom part (right channel).

Trust. Risk. Reward. This is something I have been learning in a new way as I’ve been dealing in very close, intense ways with Mike’s creativity. Yes, he’s an excellent  recording engineer. Yes, he is a superb jazz trombonist (you will hear his improvisation skills on his own composition for our album, Devils and Angels). He’s also a great guy to talk with and be around. But there are not words in any language I know to describe what goes on in his mind as he thinks through ideas that bring new, different, interesting, challenging, provocative, or unusual things to a project for which I already thought I had the last musical word. When our album is released – its provisional title is Fratres, Latin for “brothers,” taken from the piece of that name by Arvo Pärt that we recorded – it will be something the likes of which the trombone world has never, ever heard. We are making a new kind of album for this unique moment in time, a recording with many new and unexpected kinds of things. Because of Mike, it is something very different than my mind originally conceived. Once I decided to offer trust and take risks, I then began to be rewarded in ways I had not been able to imagine. And I have a very fertile imagination.

We’re not done with this. There is much more work ahead before the album is released. But as each day brings new things to consider, evaluate, change, improve, and approve, my excitement is building for what Gerry, Mike, and I are doing together. Hold on. We’re all on a wild ride and there’s no net below. But I know my brothers – Gerry and Mike – are with me in this and we are there for each other, encouraging, provoking, and experimenting. Thanks to Mike Lake, each day dawns with new things on the plate, and this is turning out to be a very satisfying meal. We look forward to sharing it with you.

[This article originally appeared in a slightly modified format on September 1, 2017 as a guest article on Mike Lake’s Blog,; it may be seen by clicking here.]