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From the Big Band to the Ice Cream Brand

By Todd Feldman

Was growing up in southern California in the 1960s full of sun and surf, or cruising during the early rock and roll lifestyle as depicted in the star-studded 1973 movie “American Graffiti”?

For composer/arranger Rich Shemaria, he remembers it as a time filled with the experiences of attending live music events, when The Beatles and Beach Boys ruled popular culture.

It also marks a moment in time when Shemaria wrote his very first composition, a short tune for a group he played in when he was 15 or 16 years old. “There was a tenor sax and trombone in it, so I had to make sure I was getting the right transpositions,” he says. “When we played it I just thought that was the coolest thing ever, to hear ones writing.” A fan of all types of genres, Shemaria had become aware of jazz when he heard people like Dave Brubeck and Ramsey Lewis, and noticed the written works of Thad Jones, Quincy Jones, and Oliver Nelson.

Back in 2018, I had an opportunity to work with him during the NYU Summer Jazz Festival, which featured a live recording of Tom Scott and the Rich Shemaria Big Band (available on the RS Berkeley YouTube channel). He arranged a number of charts, featuring some of the biggest hits from Tom Scott and the LA Express. Fast forward a few years and a pandemic later, I got to work with Shemaria again, as a guest contributor for my blog and now for this interview, which I was really looking forward to. As a writer myself, I never took the time to analyze the stories told through musical composition and now I’m fortunate enough to talk to and share the stories of one of the industry’s finest and most well respected composers.

What is your favorite musical composition and what makes it so good?

Whether it is someone else’s piece or one of my own, it has to move forward with no stumbling blocks to really pull me in. We all perceive music as it moves through time. We can’t take the whole thing in all at once as we might do if we were looking at a painting at an art museum. Great composers/arrangers know how to deftly manipulate their writing skills to make sure that a work will always be moving forward through time – I don’t care if it’s a 30-minute symphony or a three-minute pop song. Also, I think the content of a piece is important.  It has to have a “character” (melodies, chords, et cetera) that we care about. A stage play can be written well and move very promptly, but if the characters are shallow, then who cares?

What would you consider the most challenging aspects of composing and arranging music?

There are two questions here. If I am arranging something, I am working with material that already exists. The challenge is to find the right “slant” on the subject. How am I going to bring something to the material that is uniquely my own? If I am composing something, the trick is to start writing in the first place. I like to say that there is no such thing as writer’s block – only “getting started block.”

What do you usually start with when composing or arranging and can you explain how you might approach a new piece of work?

Here’s a funny anecdote: When I was in the BMI Composers Workshop, someone asked Manny Albam how he [got] started a piece. Manny replied with the classic, “I write one note.” We all laughed and said,“Okay, but how do you continue from there?” Manny didn’t miss a beat and said, “I write a second note.” Working on a new piece of music, I may improvise at the piano and until I come up with a melody and some chords, or maybe a bass line and some rhythms, and then begin to envision developing that material into some kind of form. This goes for both composing and arranging.

You currently lead the Rich Shemaria Big Band. What strategies do you use to lead so many musicians? Does the range of each musician change the way you arrange for them?

Whether it’s with the Airmen of Note, the UMO Jazz Orchestra in Helsinki, or my own band here in New York, I have been really fortunate to have really great musicians bring my music to life. When you can write for a group where you know the musicians, that aspect often comes into play when you compose for the group. Quite commonly, when I am writing improvisational sections in my pieces, I often have particular soloists in mind and will write accordingly (especially the background material). I once asked saxophonist Rich Perry what he liked to hear behind him when he was soloing. He replied, “Nothing.”  Good advice.

What are typical challenges for a composer/arranger and how can they overcome them?

I addressed that very question in my article, “Five Ways To Improve Your Writing” on your blog at bandwagonbulletin.com. 

Hopefully, most of us experience the “desire” to write music. What I mean is, the creative drive – that intangible thing within us that compels us to write down notes and rhythms and chords in an organized fashion according to the way we hear or envision them. When you were a kid and somebody put a piece of paper and a box of crayons in front of you for the first time, did they give you a manual on how to use them?  No, of course not. You grabbed the crayons and just went for it! Well, for those of us who answer the call of composing, that same creative drive can stay with us for the rest of our lives.  As we gain experience with our chosen art form, the urge to explore deeper and deeper into the possibilities of it can become an obsession. It’s like somebody opened the door into the creative universe and said, “Here, step right in. Have fun. Do whatever you want.” Who can say no to that?  If that sounds familiar, then you probably have the urge to make the next piece better than the previous one. To do that, you need to equip yourself with the tools that will help you gain access to that “doorway to the creative universe.” 

Rich Shemaria and Paul McCandless

You’re currently the jazz composer in residence within the NYU Steinhardt Jazz Studies Program, teaching composition and arranging. If a student has trouble memorizing a piece, what advice would you give them?

Hah! I have the same problem myself! I don’t think there is any way around that except to keep playing it until you have it memorized. Playing a piece in a group or at a gig is probably more helpful than just practicing it in a practice room.

How do you cope with long rehearsal hours?

In New York, there is no such thing as long rehearsals. You are lucky sometimes to have any rehearsal at all. It’s more often learning how to cope with short rehearsal hours. If I do end up in a long rehearsal, well: that’s what coffee is for.

What are you doing with your time during the pandemic and how will you continue to teach and perform?

Like many other teachers, I am teaching online with Zoom. For composition, it is not such a big change from teaching in person. I continue to compose and I am currently working on a piece for the NYU orchestra. It is a symphonic tribute, dedicated to Wayne Shorter, featuring Chris Potter on tenor saxophone.

You’ve composed and arranged for many amazing musicians. Which have been your favorite projects and why?

That’s a hard one to answer because there have been so many. I can tell you, however, that the reason I have enjoyed all of them is because the level of musicianship has been exceptional. Not just their performance abilities, but the total package: technique, improvisation, rehearsal skills, and – most notably – the manner in which they carry themselves as a professional musician. So, in no particular order: Michael & Randy Brecker, Lenny Pickett, Tom Scott, Mike Manieri, Joe Lovano, John Scofield, Stefon Harris, Jim Pugh & Dave Taylor, Marvin Stamm, Houston Person, Wayne Krantz, Roberta Gambarini, Chris Potter, and Don Friedman to name a few. Also, the many amazing musicians who have passed through my band here in NYC: Marvin Stamm, Rich Perry, Tim Hagans, Dave Bargeron, Lew Soloff, Dave Mann, Alan Gauvin, Dave Schumacher, Dave Pietro, Alex Sipiagin, Lou Marini, Dave Taylor, Jim Pugh, Mike Richmond, and Steve Johns, among others.

What path do you follow to get involved with a performer like Lady Gaga or Stevie Wonder?

Being in the right place at the right time. Also, being prepared when the moment happens.  Tom Scott was the musical director of the “Tony Bennett 90th Birthday Special” a few years back and at the last minute he needed some arrangements for Lady Gaga and Stevie Wonder. Dave Schroeder was playing in the band and suggested to Tom that I could help out.  I only had three days to do three arrangements. Part of being prepared is knowing you can get the job done and handle the pressure.

Shemaria with famed saxophonist and producer Teo Macero

What are three tips you can provide to someone who wants to start arranging?

First of all, if you have a desire to write, by all means just do it! Don’t wait around to take a class or have somebody tell you it’s okay for you to start. Jump in! Second, make sure you have the tools.  Basics are key when it comes to being able to realize your creative visions. Lastly, it’s not necessarily a requirement, but it really helps to have a group of musicians to write for. There is nothing like the experience of getting your music played live to light a creative fire under you.

If you could create a musical composition for any artist, who would that be and why?

I could think of a lot of people. As you can see from the list above, I already have written for many of my favorites. Moreover, I am just happy to be able to compose my own pieces and tap the seemingly endless supply of great musicians I find here in New York and all over the world. However, if I had to choose one person, it might be the aforementioned Wayne Shorter.

What would you be doing now if you weren’t a musician or educator?

Probably experiencing utter despair. But, if you mean do I have any other pursuits besides music, you may not believe this but, I would say possibly starting my own brand of ice cream. I have been doing it as a hobby for years and apparently I am pretty good at it because a lot of people have tried to get me to go into business.

Favorite musical experience?

There has been just too many to count to pick just one favorite experience. But, what really gets me charged up is to hear one of my pieces played for an instrumentation that I have never written for. Most of the time it occurs in a rehearsal. When I had my first orchestra pieces performed, it was with the Orquesta Sinfonica Nacional de Coast Rica – a really top-flight orchestra. It was for our group Combo Nuvo and I was playing piano.  The piano was in the middle of the orchestra and I was surrounded by sound. During the rehearsals, a lot of the time I just had to stop playing and listen. I was so content.

In Conclusion

Harmony, melody, orchestration, and transcribing are all at the foundation of composing and arranging. Rich Shemaria was kind enough to contribute a number of great tips to improve your writing and talks in depth about each of these topics, including recommended readings and videos found on my blog as mentioned in the context above.

Finally, I wonder if Ben or Jerry play piano or what a Shemaria-inspired ice cream truck jingle would sound like…? Perhaps one day you’ll see a carton of Rich’s signature flavor ice cream of banana, chocolate, and toasted almonds in the frozen food section of your local grocery store.

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