Paul Keller's ambitious jazz suite saluting Ypsilanti's history getting symphony premiere
Paul Keller is proud of his hometown and will prove it with music.
Bass player, bandleader and composer Keller has written an ambitious work, “The Ypsilanti Orchestral Jazz Suite,” which will be played by the 65-piece Ypsilanti Symphony Orchestra, directed by Adam Riccinto, in a concert at Washtenaw Community College. Besides Keller, Ypsilanti jazz musicians Doug Horn (saxophone), Rayse Biggs (trumpet), Sean Dobbins (drums) and Tad Weed (piano) will be featured.
This composition will be part of an Ypsilanti Symphony Orchestra program that salutes Ypsilanti heritage and will include other special orchestral and vocal music that has historical significance relating to Ypsilanti.
The idea for The Ypsilanti Orchestral Jazz Suite was conceived by Keller and Riccinto in March.
“I’m not exactly sure if the chicken came first or the egg came first,” said Keller. “I can remember, I was driving to a gig in South Bend and Adam Riccinto and I were talking on the phone. I don’t remember if I came up with the idea or he came up with the idea we started mulling this over the phone. They had an ‘Ypsilanti Pride’ concert in mind, it was all very loose.”
Riccinto agreed. “We wanted to do a season opener that really focused on Ypsilanti’s history,” he said. “Last winter we collaborated with Paul for our pops concert. We had a delightful time working together. I got talking about this show. He asked ‘What would you think about a jazz suite?’”
The suite, which will run around 40 minutes, contains five movements dedicated to Ypsilanti heritage. The titles of each movement are:
â€¢ “Woodruff's Grove” (the original name of the first 1823 settlement in the Ypsilanti area along the Huron River)
â€¢ “Ypsilanti Underground” (dedicated to Ypsilanti's important Civil War connection to the Underground Railroad, which helped southern slaves escape bondage)
â€¢ “The Real McCoy” (dedicated to Elijah McCoy, 1880s Ypsilanti resident and an important African/American inventor of automatic oil systems for locomotives as well as the folding ironing board)
â€¢ “Willow Run and The Great Migration” (dedicated to the World War II era and the northern migration of southerners seeking work in the auto factories retooled for wartime production)
â€¢ “Downtown To Depot Town” (a tip of the hat to Michigan Avenue and Depot Town, the resilience of the community and the future of Ypsilanti).
“It’s a rouser — a good one to close with,” Keller said of “Downtown To Depot Town.”
Keller said a smaller-scale work from 2009, “Michigan Jazz Suite,” proved a good training ground. “I thought that was my magnum opus, but that was only three horns. This is all 35 instruments of the orchestra,” Keller said.
Besides the music, Keller and Riccinto also explored the visual, social and historical possibilities for the work. With assistance from Maura Overland at the Ypsilanti Historical Society, they reviewed timelines, newspaper articles, historical photos, concert programs, sheet music and other documents.
“She’s pulling some video and historical photos; we can make this into a multimedia thing. The photos will be loosely tied to the music,” Keller said. Throughout the performance, the images will be projected on a large screen on the side of the stage.
Special narration, also written by Keller, will accompany and explain each piece. Guest narrators include Paul Schreiber (mayor of Ypsilanti), Sue Martin (president of Eastern Michigan University), James Hawkins (long-time Ypsilanti School Board President), Nat Edmunds (founder of the Ypsilanti Heritage Festival) and Linda Yohn (89.1 FM WEMU's jazz radio program director).
“If you have a little narration, tell a little story about it, the music is a little more vivid,” Keller said.
If Keller and Riccinto have any regrets, it’s that not every aspect of Ypsilanti’s rich history could be included in the work.
“We realized we couldn’t pick ever piece of history we wanted to,” Riccinto said. “It would have been absolutely impossible. We realize we’re leaving things out.”
The first half of the show includes Wagner’s Overture to der Meistersinger, Sousa’s “El Capitan,” Smetana’s Die Moldau and Copland’s Variations on a Shaker Tune, while the second half will consist of Keller’s composition, Riccinto added.
He said Keller deserves a lot of credit for tackling a project of this magnitude.
“It’s a huge labor of love because of the hundreds of hours of composition (time),” he said.
Not to worry, Keller added. “I’m doing it cheerfully, lovingly and proudly. It’s turning into something a lot bigger than I thought, musically and the whole event. I want to do this for the orchestra — I love this orchestra, a love my city and it’s a special project.
That said, money for the project is tight, Keller added. Some funds to cover the cost of the production have been provided by the YSO, with additional contributions — hopefully amounting to $3-$4,000 — being solicited from individual donors (if you want to contribute, contact Keller by e-mail, email@example.com).