By George Halas
While the province of The Inquisition is typically mirth and intellectual stimulation, on this occasion we take a moment to bid adieu and Godspeed to Fred Sturm. While not as knowledgeable as some Inquisitors, it has been impossible not to notice that mirth and intellectual stimulation always seemed to be in the same room as Fred. He wasn’t just admired and respected, he was loved and was the object of much gratitude from some of the world’s finest musicians. Please count The Inquisition among the grateful; our fondest wish is that the Cubs win more often in Heaven than on Earth.
Sturm leaves behind an impressive body of work including the international projects that resulted in the creation and performance of big-band arrangements by The Lawrence University Jazz Band of songs by Radiohead and Steely Dan, both of which received critical and popular acclaim.
Sturm’s most recent work included contributions to “The Dylan Big Band Project,” which will result in an album of big-band arrangements of the songs on the Janet Planet Sings The Bob Dylan Songbook, Volume One CD. Planet and husband-saxophonist-composer-arranger Tom Washatka are driving the project. Sturm has been a mentor and friend to both.
“I met Fred in 1972 when I was a junior at Appleton West High School. He was finishing his undergrad work at Lawrence University and did his student teaching at West,” Washatka said. “In the 80’s I played in a big band Fred started called the Valley Jazz Orchestra. I also had the opportunity to teach alongside of him for 10 years at Lawrence University and for 11 years at Tritone Jazz Fantasy Camp. I had always stayed in contact with him throughout the years.
“We were contacted by a band director from Norway and commissioned to arrange for big band all the tunes on the original Dylan recording,” Washatka continued. “I was initially a bit skeptical, but the more I thought about it the more appealing it became. This was also on the heels of a recording I’d heard of Rolling Stones music arranged for big band. At first I, again, was a bit skeptical, but after hearing about a minute of that recording I knew exactly how the Dylan project could be.
“And we decided to go for it.
“When Janet and I embarked on the Dylan project we asked Fred if he’d do a couple arrangements. Without hesitation, he said ‘yes’ and contributed two beautiful arrangements. The first was “I’ll Keep It With Mine” and the other was “Tonight, I’ll Be Staying Here With You.” Fred had a tremendous and profound influence on me musically, educationally and personally. While I didn’t study arranging with him directly, every arrangement of his I played was a lesson. Every opportunity to watch him conduct or be conducted by him was a lesson. He was accessible and approachable and always took a moment to ask about you. The world is a bit diminished but his legacy will last forever!”
Washatka and Planet will strive mightily to not only continue Sturm’s legacy but his vision as well.
“The big band versions of that initial project take the words, harmonies and, ultimately, the message to another level,” Planet said. “It’s almost like the first album was a demo for the second. I’d like to call it “Dylan Scored” or “Dylan Colored In” but we’ll see…This is not just another CD project to hock, this is something we feel will continue to give on many levels.”
Like Sturm, Planet and Washatka are educators who have incorporated and educational component to this project.“Janet and I have been teachers for the better part of 35 years. I’ve taught at Lawrence for 10 years as well as my own studio,” Washatka said. “Janet is currently teaching at Lawrence as well as a busy schedule with her own studio. And because this music is so accessible on many levels we wanted to be able to perform it with high school, college, community and professional bands. As part of our performance package we also give clinics and master classes on performing, recording, and music business. We love working with young kids in any capacity and we saw this as a perfect opportunity to do so.
“In fact,” he added, “the premier performance of this music will be in early October. We’ve been invited by Dean Sorenson, the head of Jazz Studies at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, to perform with his big band. We’re very excited about that!
“The educational component is very important to us because, for various reasons, we think music, especially jazz music, is being devalued in our culture,” Washatka continued. “If we can somehow be a part of turning that around, we’re excited about doing so.”
“The educational component is a no-brainer. Hey! Is that an oxymoron?” Planet asked rhetorically. “Seriously, Dylan contributed so much to the landscape of the times. We stayed within the decade of the sixties with this project, and the lyric reflects that time in our history. Of course, not all the songs included have to do with the politics, but even his love songs give and insight as to where his head was at during that time.
“The other educational aspect is to bring this book to colleges and, in one fell swoop, educate students about poetry, the power of the word and how they affect social change as well as the musical side of what we do as artists,” she continued. “I’d love to hear another singer tackle some of these arrangements and make it work! My whole approach to teaching is based on looking at words first, melody second whereas many singers look at melody first, words, second. This will be a challenge.
“The initial Dylan project was the most daunting for me because of the volumes of lyric and folk ad-lib of Dylan’s vocal style,” Planet added. “How we made it work for me-plus-trio was to look at the lyric, find a subtext––something that resonates with me as a deliverer of the lyric––and then creatively “colored in” the story line with jazz harmonies and rhythms. The allowance of densities in harmony that jazz permits made the project a challenge but also an incredible learning experience. Dylan’s melodies are not extremely angular like many great jazz standards, but his phrasing is unique. I had to decide to phrase based on how I felt about the message. Because of the sheer volume of words in this project, I also had to look at the rhythmic qualities of words. That’s kinda my thing anyway. I’ve been accused of being “too articulate,” but I look at it as an opportunity to put the words in a musical context using the rhythm of the sounds of the words while telling the story.”
“One of the things we’re hoping for is to bring Dylan fans to jazz music and jazz fans to Dylan’s music in a very unique way,” Washatka said. “That, to our knowledge, has never been done before, merging America’s original art form with one of America’s musical originals.”
In its quest for truth, The Inquisition must point out that the last part isn’t quite true––Planet and Washatka have already done with Janet Planet Sings The Bob Dylan Songbook, Volume One.
The Inquisition also believes that it is one of the most important jazz albums of this century that raises the bar for all jazz vocalists. In response to a suggestion of “hometown hyperbole”––yes, the notion of an “important” jazz album coming out of Wisconsin does seems, well, unlikely––The Inquisition double dares ya to listen to the Planet-Washatka-Tom Theabo masterwork twice ––once as just a jazz album, then as a work of art that pushes the creative envelope. It is an excellent jazz album––Planet’s vocals are particularly poignant––and it is an ambitious, daring, artistic effort that succeeds admirably in adding new dimensions and vision to some of greatest songs of all time. And you will like it even better the second time.
The Inquisition is also confident that, eventually, even the snobbiest jazzholes will agree with this assessment.