Blue Shades (1996) was my introduction to Frank Ticheli and his music back when I played it (2nd trumpet) with the Dartmouth Wind Symphony in 2000.  I’ve seen a lot of his music since then, and I still think it’s one of his best.  Ticheli talks eloquently about the piece and its origins in the score:

In 1992 I composed a concerto for traditional jazz band and orchestra, Playing With Fire, for the Jim Cullum Jazz Band and the San Antonio Symphony.  That work was composed as a celebration of the traditional jazz music I heard so often while growing up near New Orleans.

I experienced tremendous joy during the the creation of Playing With Fire, and my love for early jazz is expressed in every bar of the concerto.  However, after completing it I knew that the traditional jazz influences dominated the work, leaving little room for my own musical voice to come through.  I felt a strong need to compose another work, one that would combine my love of early jazz with my own musical style.

Four years, and several compositions later, I finally took the opportunity to realize that need by composing Blue Shades.  As its title suggests, the work alludes to the Blues, and a jazz feeling is prevalent–however, it is not literally a Blues piece.  There is not a single 12-bar blues progression to be found, and except for a few isolated sections, the eighth-note is not swung.

The work, however, is heavily influenced by the Blues.: “Blue notes” (flatted 3rds, 5ths, and 7ths) are used constantly; Blues harmonies, rhythms, and melodic idioms pervade the work; and many “shades of blue” are depicted, from bright blue, to dark, to dirty, to hot blue.

At times, Blue Shade burlesques some of the cliches from the Big Band era, not as a mockery of those conventions, but as a tribute. A slow and quiet middle section recalls the atmosphere of a dark, smoky blues haunt.  An extended clarinet solo played near the end recalls Benny Goodman’s hot playing style, and ushers in a series of “wailing” brass chords recalling the train whistle effects commonly used during that era.

He goes on to say that the minor 3rd is the most important interval in the piece, showing up in various accompaniment figures and in every major melodic theme.  The piece even starts with that message in mind: the first nine intervals are all minor thirds!  Listen to this nearly perfect (though they don’t swing quite enough at 14) recording of the North Texas Wind Symphony playing it, and you’ll see what I mean:

And here’s the Columbia Wind Ensemble playing it in December 2007.  We’re not North Texas, but as I look at that video, I see one of the most legendary front rows in CUWE history!  Fair warning – this was recorded from the front row of the audience on a camcorder.

Now let’s look at some of the background in that program note: Ticheli talks about how there is no 12-bar blues in the piece, yet it’s full of blue notes, those in-between pitches usually found at the 3rd, 5th, and 7th.  To illustrate where that comes from, here’s John Lee Hooker:

The smoky jazz club of the center section has its roots in slow blues.  Ticheli even calls it “Dirty” in the score.  So, here’s some nice, dirty, slow burlesque-type blues.  This will give you an idea of the sound you’re after.  I would show a dance to go along with it, but many of those are too PG-13 for this space.  Suffice it to say, this section should sound like hair-tossing!

The clarinet solo was inspired by Benny Goodman.  So here’s the man himself:

Finally, Ticheli uses a train whistle effect in the brass wails towards the end of the piece.  You can hear bits and pieces of that in the Chattanooga Choo-Choo as performed by the Glenn Miller Orchestra:

Ticheli’s publisher hosts a complete, downloadable set of mp3s of the vast majority of his large ensemble music on their website – quite a find!

Frank Ticheli’s personal website, Frankticheli.com.

Ticheli bio on wikipedia.

Frank Ticheli’s Facebook fanclub.

A video interview with Ticheli in which he talks about composing.

For those who have forgotten, here’s my short bio on Frank Ticheli: Educated at the University of Michigan, composer Frank Ticheli (b. 1958) has become one of the biggest names in new wind band repertoire.  Since 1991 he has been a Professor of Composition USC-Thornton and, until 1998, Composer in Residence of the Pacific Symphony.  The recipient of many awards, he was most recently winner of the 2006 NBA/William D. Revelli Memorial Band Composition Contest for his Symphony No. 2.