I just played my final combo concert at school this week. It's hard to believe I'm almost done with music school. I have a few weeks left to finish the rest of my classes, then a recital in the spring, and that's it. It still feels like I just started, until I look at the tunes I was playing in Combo 4 just one year ago: "Blue Bossa," "Mr. PC," "Triste," "Blue in Green," "Invitation." I must have progressed somewhere along the way, because the tunes we played in Combo 2 this semester make those look like nursery rhymes.

Richard Thompson was our director. Here's the band:

Brian Mansfield - Saxophone
Kris Korsgaden - Piano
Fred Kunze - Guitar
Joe Walker - Guitar
Doug Welcome - Bass
Nathan Levenson - Drums

From the beginning of the semester, Richard's philosophy on choosing repertoire was "I guarantee there are no other university combos playing these tunes." With the exception of one standard, everything we played was new to me. And totally impossible, for a while. For the first several weeks we were adding new tunes at every rehearsal, but once we settled on a collection of potential material for the concert, I could see more results from practicing on my own.

It was a fun, challenging, at times frustrating, and eventually rewarding experience. Handwritten crazy charts from Donald Brown and Geoffrey Keezer were the biggest hurdles. Richard gave us great advice on how to approach this kind of music, the recurring theme being melodic development. With hardly a tonal cadence in sight, listeners need something to hang on to, and the kind of change-running that works on standards fails here. I wrote about melodic development last year: Theme and Variation. This experience has put it in a whole new context.

And here's the setlist. See below for song clips.

"I Hear a Rhapsody" - George Fragos, Jack Baker, Dick Gasparre
This was the only standard we played all semester, and the only tune I'd ever heard before. As standards go, it has some non-standard moves in the harmony that make it interesting to play. It was a good fit with the rest of the set. I soloed on this one.

"The Early Bird Gets the Short End of the Stick" - Donald Brown
This was one of those handwritten crazy charts. We rehearsed it enough to internalize it though. When deciding solos for the concert, I requested to play on anything but this one. The changes are balls hard. Dmaj7#9#11. Huh? Cool song though.

"From Day to Day" - Mulgrew Miller
More crazy chords, but more laid back in a jazz waltz feel, and a nice professional-looking chart from one of the Chuck Sher New Real Books. When we hit the pocket on this tune, it floated along like a dream, even with the complex harmony.

"Playground for the Birds" - Donald Brown
Another handwritten crazy chart. And more tough changes, but the chords themselves aren't so bad, mostly Lydian/Dorian chords with a weird form. I soloed on this one.

"A Joyful Noise (for JW)" - Steve Wilson
Richard liked to ask "Who's JW?" when we rehearsed this. I always piped up with "Me." Another jazz waltz, but at a slower tempo, this was our only slow piece. And it has some ii-Vs! Everyone shred while you can!

"Mirrim" - Geoffrey Keezer
This tune is nuts. Keezer recorded this in the studio in 2003 and about 30% faster live in 2005. Richard insisted that we take the insane latter tempo, and I think we might have exceeded it in the concert. The head has some gnarly runs that were really fun to play.

"The Spectacle that Is Jerry Brown: My Aura Smiles and Never Frowns" - Kris Korsgaden
An original blues from our piano player. He's not a fan of politicians. The head strays from the standard blues form for an excursion in alternating 6/8 and 2/4 bars with a psychotic line that sounds like devil elves dancing around a bonfire. Everyone soloed on this tune, with instructions to take it as far outside as possible, sticking only to the 12-bar form.