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Mark McGrain discusses the music of Plunge

and his musical roots



The compositions on both Plunge albums are designed with the intention of not only being memorable but also to push the envelope of what’s considered “Jazz” for both my players and my audience, simultaneously.  In other words: to forge new territory both for the practitioners of the art as well as the listener; to break new ground in a palatable manner.  Historically, it seems to me, Avant Garde jazz musicians have too often tended to alienate many mainstream listeners in their experimentations.  My purpose is to do just the opposite by expanding the jazz vocabulary in a way that draws both players and listeners into a common arena.  Mingus did this by using the familiar devices of Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, and Jimmy Lunsford (others as well) and also the early to mid-twentieth century “serious”/”classical” composers.  The palatability of his music allowed his players to expand on sounds that were familiar to, while not alienating, listeners by giving them recognizable motivic hand-holds.  Medeski, Martin, and Wood (as just one example of current practitioners) have done much the same thing by founding their compositions and improvisations on devices familiar to fans of both post-bop/fusion and the rock Avant Garde. 


My approach to the trombone: 

It’s all too easy to view the trombone as an endangered species.  As a jazz instrument, it is indeed far more cumbersome than say the saxophone or the trumpet - let alone the guitar.  Over time, fewer and fewer kids coming up have gravitated toward the trombone and it has, at times, been relegated to an almost comedic role.  Fact is, it’s the only fully microtonal brass instrument we have and possesses the broadest range of any of the wind instruments.  My functional range, as used in my recordings (and this is not uncommon amongst most good players) extends from pedal E (five spaces below the bass clef) to D three spaces above the treble clef; a span of more than five octaves.  In addition, just as mutes have traditionally been used to add timbral variety to the instrument’s sound, I like to incorporate electronic signal processing that compliments the pure sound of the horn without trying to simply emulate the sounds of electric guitar and synthesizers.  This is most vividly exemplified in “Friday Night at the Top” (Dancing on Thin Ice, opening track) where the electronics applied to my instrument are generated live/simultaneously (there’s no multi-tracking anywhere on the record) without usurping the true acoustic sound of the instrument.  The one example on the album that does use the trombone more as a “controller” of the electronics than as an acoustic instrument unto itself is “One Man’s Machine.”  For that track, even though it is also recorded live and in one take (again no overdubbing) the sound heard on the recording comes entirely and completely from the out-put of my effects rack.  It is important to me that I do what I can to bring the instrument up to date and gain the interest and respect of today’s technologically savvy ears while also respecting the history and tradition of one of our oldest musical instruments. 


My early musical development:

I began playing trumpet at age five when my father introduced me to the music of Louis Armstrong, Art Tatum, Earl Hines, and his beloved Bobby Hackett. I also wore the grooves out of a Les and Larry Elgart record he had which was my introduction to large ensemble arranging and the role of the trombone within such ensembles.  It was the playing of Trummy Young and Jack Teagarden that first inspired my early improvisational ear.  By the time I was ten or eleven I had moved from trumpet to the trombone (via baritone horn) and by the age of thirteen I was composing and arranging for large jazz ensemble (Big Band).  I was fortunate enough to grow up in Rochester N.Y. and the many Eastman School of Music alumni that lived and taught there at that time.  I played in an all-city high school ensemble conducted by Chuck Mangione (as well as the late, great Gerry Niewood and the legendary bass trombonist Bill Reichenbach).  During that time, many jazz greats were coming to Rochester to perform and many would stop by and play with the band.  As a result, I got to play with Philly Joe Jones, Clark Terry, Gerry Mulligan, Louie Bellson, and others.  I also had the opportunity during that time to attend live performances by the Buddy Rich Band, Duke Ellington and his orchestra, Count Basie, and the Thad Jones – Mel Lewis band.  Meanwhile, my turntable at home was stacked with Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and Don Ellis as well as Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, and the early Allman Bros. Band, and Carlos Santana to name a few.  My favorite modern trombonists were Frank Rosolino, Jimmy Cleveland, Jimmy Knepper, and Roswell Rudd.  Later, I also immersed myself in the music of 20th Century “serious” composers including Charles Ives, Toru Takemitzu, John Cage, Edgar Varese, Iannis’ Xenakis, and Karlheinz Stockhausen.


My career has included music preparation in the Los Angeles film industry, scoring for television (PBS Docs), teaching arranging and jazz composition at Berklee College of Music (where I authored the text book Music Notation, Hal Leonard Pub.) and working as a free-lance trombonist and arranger in Boston and New Orleans.


The role of improvisation within my compositions:

Essentially what happens is there is the written part which dictates the melody, counter melody, and bass line as well as the form of the arrangement (i.e. length, solo order, and order of the composition including background lines to be played beneath the soloist of the moment).  It is understood, between my fellow players and I, that if one of us is moved to add unwritten material to accompany the soloist its o.k.  In some cases I dictate that we all, or any combination of us are to improvise collaboratively at the same time.  To me, the goal when reading music is always to make it sound as if one is either making it up on the spot, fluidly, or at least knows the part as if they’ve played it all their life.  The mark of a good reader, then, is to make every thing sound natural and unrestrained.  Tim and James are two such readers.  Keep in mind, also, that I’m an expert in the art of music notation (I wrote one of the most recognized, and widely read text books on the subject – for instance, every student who has passed through Berklee since 1985 has been required to either read my book and/or prove that they understand its content fully) so my parts are very clear as to all the musical parameters necessary to convey what I want to have realized.  I’m pretty much in total control of what I want, including what is improvised, to what degree something is improvised, and what is not improvised.  I used to teach an upper semester course at Berklee entitled “Composing with Improvisational Controls for the Jazz Ensemble” which covered this exact topic.  The Plunge material is very traditionally notated though.  I’m considering marketing the lead-sheets for all my Plunge compositions.  If one could see what the parts look like on paper they would have a better idea of what’s predetermined and what is not.  This music is specifically written with simplicity of execution in mind as well as accessibility for the listener; I think the two very often go hand-in-hand.


The bottom line:

Plunge’s music is meant to be as much fun to perform as it is to listen to.  It’s intended to move, inspire, and challenge while also remaining executable without excessive rehearsal.  That doesn’t mean it’s without compositional complexity or contain unpredictable twists; it means that despite possessing either of those traits it will still sound simple and organic.  As a composer, I’m most satisfied when my music is enjoyed and respected by virtuosic musicians, fans of the idiom, and especially uninitiated listeners (the common man) alike.  That’s the ultimate kick for me.

-- Mark McGrain, New Orleans – 01.01.10


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