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Becoming The Renaissance Man
A Lifelong Quest for Creative Knowledge and Expression
Growing up in the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia in the 1980s, I fondly remember reading Garfield, creating my own comic strip character based on Jim Davis’ famous feline, spending long hours playing The Legend of Zelda and Super Mario Bros. on the Nintendo Entertainment System (ostensibly honing eye-hand coordination), writing short fantasy stories on our typewriter, and manipulating my voice on the Yamaha VSS-30 Digital Voice Sampler to revel in the sound of “French fries” spoken in reverse.
“Subscribers to The Renaissance Man will read the unique perspective of an educator, performer, composer, arranger, programmer and producer who has worked in many different sectors of the music industry.”
My parents were not creative types, but my father loved listening to jazz, and as a freshman at UNC-Chapel Hill in 1959 saw Dave Brubeck’s Quartet on tour and bought Miles Davis’ new record “Kind of Blue,” which would go on to become the best selling jazz album of all time. Whenever dad played hard bop around the house, with its infectious “spang-a-lang” ride cymbal patterns, I poked fun at the repetitive rhythms as a boy. Little did I know that the music would eventually get its revenge, as I toiled away in practice rooms for hours on end in graduate school working on my time.
Fast forward to 2023, where I live and work in Muncie, Indiana, home of Garfield the Cat. This year I began teaching a course on film, television and video game music at Ball State University, where I am Associate Professor of Jazz Piano. My 2008 dissertation from a Doctor of Musical Arts degree in Jazz Composition at the University of Miami, titled Americana Suite: A Composition for Full Orchestra, Big Band, and Jazz Chamber Ensembles Inspired by American Master Paintings, synthesized my lifelong loves of music and art in an American version of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures At An Exhibition.” And I still get a kick out of reversing audio samples, though listeners are more likely to hear a reversed piano or guitar on one of my electro-acoustic jazz albums like Inside (2020, Summit Records).
In high school I began getting portrait commissions from fellow classmates, and was selected for the Georgia Governor’s Honors Program as a visual artist. Before going to college at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I was a summer intern at the CNN Center in Atlanta as a graphic design artist. These skills would later prove useful when I began designing and managing my own website, and when I needed to create eye-catching designs for gig promotions.
My love of American art of the 19th and early 20th century developed around 2008 when I was writing my dissertation. I studied the realist naturalism of the Hudson River School painters and the colorful plein air works of the American Impressionists, and quickly put my grad school research chops to use in compiling and publishing biographical information about 19th century female artists whose lives and careers were all but forgotten to art historians until recently. I collected works from these periods and learned the art of oil painting restoration from my father-in-law, who was a museum conservator in Lviv, Ukraine. Many of these restored paintings were then sold to New York and New England art dealers and some went on to be featured at exhibitions and bought by private collectors.
The source of the name “Renaissance Man” was the Dean of the College of Fine Arts at Ball State University, who at my interview for the job declared me a “modern Renaissance man” after hearing about my varied experience in both the music and art worlds. At future meetings, we often talked music and art, so the name stuck.
After winning the John Lennon Songwriting Contest Maxell Song of the Year in 2004, I was recommended as a composer for the LucasArts produced video game “Fracture,” and worked closely with the game development team Day 1 Studios to create a unique musical concept for the game in the form of several spec demos. In 2021 I scored Peter Krygowski’s short film noir “The Joes” using a Jimmy Smith-style Hammond B3 organ trio.
My path to becoming a symphonic jazz composer/arranger and Pops arranger was more complicated and certainly not predictable. While attending the Henry Mancini Institute in Los Angeles as a Composer Scholar in 2004, I met a violinist named Chien Tan, who later commissioned me to write a fiddle music-inspired Concerto for Jazz Violin and Orchestra (2007). This piece won the University of Miami Concerto Composition Competition and was premiered later that year by violin soloist and professor Glenn Basham, with my wife Sofia Kraevska conducting. Glenn then brought the first movement of the concerto to the Naples Philharmonic Orchestra, where he was concertmaster, and performed it again under the baton of Pops conductor Michael Krajewski, who was Principal Pops Conductor of the Atlanta Symphony and the Houston Symphony Orchestra. Krajewski liked my work enough to take a chance on me as a Pops arranger for these major orchestras, and we had many successful commissions performed around the country. Then in 2014 after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in Ukraine, jazz violinist Christian Howes performed my Jazz Violin Concerto in Lviv, Ukraine under the auspices of cultural diplomacy. Howes’ performances were the catalyst for the popularization and adoption of the composition into the repertoire of violin soloists worldwide.
On the symphonic jazz side of things, I was selected to participate in the 2011 Metropole Orkest Arrangers Workshop in the Netherlands with mentor and Musical Director Vince Mendoza. After the workshop, I became a regular arranger for the Metropole Orkest over the next decade.
Around the same time I began working as a big band arranger for Singapore’s “King of Swing” Jeremy Monteiro. Our collaborations have blossomed into Monteiro’s current revitalization of symphonic jazz in Singapore, in support of which I have written several arrangements for his live shows at the Esplanade Concert Hall over the past few years.
I have been performing as a jazz pianist for thirty years now and have released two critically-acclaimed jazz piano trio albums on Summit Records, Every End is a Beginning and Supermoon, both of which feature my original compositions. My jazz piano teacher Manfredo Fest cultivated my lifelong love of Brazilian jazz, while my grad school teacher Vince Maggio passed on a love of melody, swing, an orchestral approach to the piano, and a deep-rooted respect for the standards. Vince was a student of Oscar Peterson and was once roommates with Bill Evans—stories for a future installment!
More recently I had the great honor of being selected for the jury of the American Pianists Association Jazz Piano Competition in both 2018-2019 (Emmet Cohen won the Cole Porter Fellowship) and 2022-2023 (Isaiah Thompson, winner), which is the largest jazz prize in the world at $200,000. One day I will share my thoughts on the difficulty of judging such high level virtuosic performers.
Subscribers to The Renaissance Man will read the unique perspective of an educator, performer, composer, arranger, programmer and producer who has worked in many different sectors of the music industry.