What is so striking about Walt Whitman’s poetry is that you can envision him in your world, and you in his. It is like time travel through poetry. His thoughts are provocative and eternal and his insights are as equally profound today as yesterday. You can hear the “balling and din,” feel the bodies touching, see his view from the Brooklyn Bridge and smell the horse carrying the pioneers out west.
With this in mind, Dial &Oatts decided that Whitman and jazz both represent the originality, beauty and resilience of American culture. It is our desire to bring new focus to the poetry of an American icon through the music we love and compose. The poems were chosen based on the inspiration and passion that drew us in and spoke to us individually.
Adding melody to Whitman’s text was initially intimidating. It took some time for us to settle into the vernacular of his day. Developing the appropriate harmonic progression and rhythmic flow without crowding his mood and message was challenging. Two of our past three projects included a 12 piece chamber brass setting and 30 piece string section. Both were used as backdrops to the Dial & Oatts quartet. This time we needed the words of Whitman to take center stage. This is why we chose the sensational Temple University Concert Choir and Jazz Collective to vocalize them. The right key centers, dynamics, soloing, voice ranges, orchestration and rhythmic intensities would become paramount. At this juncture, we called in the amazing talents of Richard DeRosa. As in our past recordings, Rich understood our vibe immediately and opened up further windows of possibility. His expertise and contribution were invaluable and masterfully brilliant.
Dial & Oatts would like to extend a special thank you to the Boyer College of Music and Dance faculty involved: Joanna Pascale, Dan Monaghan, Madison Rast and Terell Stafford, along with Maestros Paul Rardin and Mitos Andaya. Their willingness, knowledge and dedication were crucial in making this (huge) project a reality. Equally crucial were the solo and studio vocalists who performed so beautifully during our New York and New Jersey sessions. Their sacrifice and contribution was an inspiration. Sean Kelly was our extraordinary engineer at Water Music and Avatar recording studios. Sean has the ability to make any talent sound better. The Boyer Choir program is truly exception and our deepest appreciation and respect goes out to each and every choir member.
Working to blend unique styles of music from different backgrounds has always been a dream of mine. It would not have been possible without the support and constant encouragement of Dean Robert T. Stroker, Linda Fiore, Dr. Beth Bolton, Dr. Ed Flanagan, Tara Webb Duey and my favorite trumpet player, educator and department chair, Mr. Terell Stafford.
I would especially like to thank my partner, Garry Dial, for all his passion on piano, composition and dedication into putting friendship first. Lastly, I would like to thank Sam, Jane, Jack, Henry, Alaina and Debbie for their constant love, patience and understanding. I dedicate this recording to the singer/songwriters and poets out there. Keep on expressing what is inside you as Walt Whitman did. We need to hear what you have to say.
New York City, March 2014
Note: The poems selected from “Leaves of Grass” are from the following sections: Inscriptions, Autumn Rivulets, Calamus, Drum-Taps, First Annex: Sands At Seventy and Children of Adam. Also, the track, “To Him Who Was Crucified,” is loosely based on the melody and chord structure of Jerome Kern’s "All the Things You Are.”
In the early 1990’s, Dick Oatts and I made three recordings with our jazz quartet for DMP records. One with a 30-piece string orchestra, one with a brass choir and one for a quartet.
After many years of gigging and recording separately, Dial & Oatts once again decided on a large work. Oatts thought it was time to record with a full choir. Our next step was to find a text to set to music.
My father had a bookcase with all the classic literature bound in beautiful leather. For some reason I was always drawn to Walt Whitman’s "Leaves of Grass," especially the poem "To a Stranger." I suggested to Dick that we write our music to his poems.
Dick asked Temple University, where he is a professor, if they were interested in having their choir be part of the project. Dean Stroker loved the idea. We set out three years ago and began to write. Once again the Dial & Oatts concept, as was done with the strings and brass, was to have the choir do what they do best and sing without jazz inflection except for the lead vocal soloists. Oatts insisted that the phrasing of the choir be clear with no exaggerated inflection. Just serve the poetry.
Although I have worked with singers since I was 14 years old I had never written music with lyrics. Since Whitman is poetry and not lyrics there was a specific challenge presented. I had to find a new writing process. I lived with each poem until I could say the poem in rhythm. I wrote the lyrics in drum notation until it sat in the pocket. This took much longer than I expected. Once it was finished I had the joy of putting melodies and harmony to the rhythms. To my surprise, the music wrote itself very quickly.
Of the eight tunes written by myself, all were created with this process except the one a cappella piece, "Unfolded out of the Folds." This one had a very unusual birth. Three summers ago I was in my home in St. John, USVI, working on the music. I wrote the first line “Unfolded out of the folds of the woman man comes unfolded " and I looked up and saw Hurricane Irene coming across the ocean straight at me. In one minute water was all over the floor. I mopped up the floor and wrote the second line, then the living room began to flood again and I mopped again. Every 15 minutes this new compositional style repeated itself. After 24 continuous and very scary hours, the hurricane ended and “Unfolded” was completed. Although it was a very interesting process I don't recommend it to composers.
I suggested we incorporate well-known New York singers with the Temple University Concert Choir to fuse our concept. We recorded top singers who have worked with Billy Joel, Sting, Paul Simon, Tony Bennett and Celine Dion, to name a few. The music is a merging of professionals and the up-and-coming singers from the Boyer College of Music and Dance. Once again we teamed up with Rich DeRosa who wrote the vocal arrangements for the choir and conducted all the professional singers. We also added guitar players Paul Meyers, Alex Goodman and percussionist Jamey Haddad to round out the burning Boyer faculty rhythm section.
Many thanks to the conductors, Paul Rardin and Mitos Andaya for going the extra mile. I would also like to point out that in this age of the Millennial Generation it was pure joy working with the talented Boyer students. They were all respectful, hard working and full of enthusiasm. I was blown away that in such a short time frame they memorized our challenging music. They made Temple proud. They are the wave of the future and the future is bright.
I would like to say special thanks to Richard DeRosa for his genius writing, conducting and studio expertise but also his extreme generosity. He flew to New York for eight separate weeks, working 18 hour days in the studio just to make our music come to life. We are forever grateful.
A special thanks to singer-songwriter Terre Roche, not only for her beautiful singing and production help, but for her expertise in the written word. Jazz instrumentalists sometimes fall short in paying attention to the lyrics. Terre taught me the importance of the lyric and how to bring Whitman’s subtlety and depth into our musical focus.
And finally to my musical brother Dick Oatts: you have always pointed me towards our next musical project and insist on living life as a humble artist. You have been and continue to be a true inspiration in my life.
It has been said that Dial & Oatts have very different personalities yet are a match that complements each other well. Without speaking, we found it interesting that I chose poems about personal relationships and Oatts chose poems of a more global nature. The words of Whitman, while being 150 years old, are timeless and have given both Dick and myself a huge palette to express who we are both as music partners and as individuals.
--- Garry Dial
New York City, March 2014
We are grateful to have had the honor of working with the greatest singers in New York. Like the Temple Choirs they gave of their time and expertise in a selfless way, sometimes coming in on a moment’s notice to record. They have performed on Broadway, Jazz at Lincoln Center and recorded on many GRAMMY® winning recordings that include such artists as: Sting, Paul Simon, Billy Joel, Placido Domingo, Bette Midler, Celine Dion, The Roches, Paul Simon, The New York Voices and Gerry Mulligan.
--- Dick Oatts and Garry Dial