Utah Arts Festival 2021: Jazz commissions feature Utah’s Steve Erickson, Tyler Chen in three world premieres

This year’s Utah Arts Festival brings three world premieres in its jazz commission program, representing the 2020 and 2021 winners: Steve Erickson and Tyler Chen, respectively. Their pieces will premiere Aug, 27 at 6:30 p.m. on the Festival Stage with the Salt Lake City Jazz Orchestra.

Tyler Chen: Acclimation and Blues for Courtney

In middle school, Tyler Chen learned to play the flute but by the time he arrived at Hillcrest High School In Midvale, he turned to drums and piano. In an interview with The Utah Review, Chen says, “I liked the big, powerful sounds of the jazz band in high school.” When he started his studies at The University of Utah, his teachers, who were also prominent in Salt Lake City’s rapidly developing jazz scene, helped to clarify what he wanted to do with music as a career. His mentors included Kris Johnson, the phenomenal Detroit trumpeter who led the school’s jazz studies program for several years and whose Utah Arts Festival jazz commission in 2016 wowed the audience, along with Steve Lyman, Brian Booth, and the late Courtney Isaiah Smith, the pianist who cofounded the Jazz Vespers Quartet in Utah.

Chen’s multifaceted musical career already staked out impressive territory by the time he received his degree in jazz composition and a music technology certificate at the U  A drummer, he has been in marching and jazz bands, a percussionist with symphonic groups and has played in bars with his Sunnyside Avenue jazz quintet. One of his biggest passions has been with Samba Fogo, the outstanding local Brazilian dance and music institution which has drawn large crowds whenever it performs at the Utah Arts Festival. 

The two pieces Chen has written for the 2021 festival’s jazz commission resonate with the passions that shaped the decisions he has made in his musical career. Blues for Courtney, a tribute to Smith, who died earlier this year at the age of 37 due to complications from COVID-19 and other heath issues. “It is a tribute to the ‘unexpected departure’ of one of Utah’s musical geniuses,” Chen explains. “Throughout my time in college I was honored enough to get to watch and listen to Courtney play the piano and his playing was magical and influential.” When Chen took a few lessons from Smith, he was drawn to his teacher’s depth of knowledgeable perspective. “His approach to harmony was ethereal and understanding of music history was profound. Through the culmination of all of the lessons with Courtney I was inspired to write this piece but never gotten the chance to show him. However, I am lucky enough to share this with everyone else.  This piece is a celebration of Courtney’s life.”

Tyler Chen.

Chen says listeners to the piece will hear different variations of twelve-bar blues, among the significant chord progressions of the genreThere are stylistic influences including 12/8 blues, blues shuffle, a piano solo in the New Orleans style, and then finally bebop, as Chen outlines. “The melody of the piece is light-hearted with a splash of angst accompanied by cheerful and lively harmonies,” he adds. Notable is a sax soli section — in the style of what Chen calls a a small bebop/cool jazz group — near the end of the piece, which Chen says is a transcription of one of Courtney’s solos on Miles Davis’ Freddie Freeloader when he played in a trio with Steve Lyman (drums) and Denson Angulo (bass) at The Rabbit Hole in downtown Salt Lake City. 

Chen’s tribute to Smith springs from the pillars of blues, jazz and New Orleans music in the American roots spectrum  “Courtney embodied American roots music thus I deemed it important to study and compose it in these styles,” Chen explains. “During the composition process I would listen to people like Thad Jones, Duke Ellington, and Wycliffe Gordon to study their scoring and composition styles, then listen to artists such as Ray Charles and Fats Domino to internalize the sound, feel, and groove.”

“When Courtney passed, the whole community felt his passing in a significant way and this piece makes it a little bit easier in dealing with it,” Chen says. “I thought about how I had to represent Courtney with the way I knew him. He embodied the whole sense of American roots music and his deep well of knowledge inspired me.” 

Tyler Chen.

Chen’s second piece, Acclimation, springs just as dynamically from an interplay of emotions and passions — one dealing with the sudden halt of normal activities during the pandemic, another representing the culmination of his studies with his musical mentors at the U. and a third dealing with his love of being a part of Samba Fogo and his appreciation of samba and bossa nova. “Before the pandemic, I made extensive plans of what I was going to do before and after I graduate,” he explains. “Everything from finishing major projects, personal goals, and traveling.  However, all of that changed when the coronavirus hit Utah and I started to see the future becoming bleak.  All of my time put into planning and preparation were all done in vain and I became hopeless.” 

Fortunately, that hopelessness was short-lived. “I had to change the way I saw the situation and sought out opportunities during this curse rather than drown in my sorrows,” he adds. “What this pandemic taught me was to acclimate. It has taught me that sometimes in order to move forward I have to embrace the changes that are out of my control and adapt my frame of mind.”

Chen says listeners should be able to feel the piece’s “rhythmic backbone” underlying the “light and graceful melody.” The rhythmic ostinato comes from samba which is traditionally played by the tamborim, a Brazilian percussion instrument. Chen scores the work in the classic structure for the big jazz band sound that first captivated him during his high school days: 17 instruments including four trumpets, four trombones, five saxes and the rhythm section. “The significant influence of this piece is the music of Brazil,” Chen explains. “I would spend time listening to bossa nova, samba and pagode music with artists such as Antonio Jobim, Guinga, Toninho Horta, Maria Rita, Sergio Mendes, and Joao Bosco.  Before the writing process, I spent weeks listening to their music so I could internalize it and use it as my inspiration.”

Steve Erickson: Three-thirty on Thursday

A native of Lethridge in Canada’s Alberta province, Erickson studied jazz and classical styles as a pianist at several schools, including Brigham Young University in Provo, where he met his wife. But, then his career took him to numerous destinations before returning to Utah in 2017. After a short stint as director of jazz studies at Truman State University, he joined the U.S. Air Force in 1997, performing with Air Force Bands for 20 years, including 18 years with the distinguished jazz ensemble of the Air Force, The Airmen of Note. Since his retirement, he has focused on teaching, performing, arranging and composing in the Salt Lake metropolitan area as well as in Utah County. 

The title of his composition, which he wrote during the pandemic, came in a matter-of-fact moment. “I was sitting in the room with my wife and I looked up at the clock at 3:30 on a Thursday afternoon,” he says. To wit: Take The A Train, one of the greatest jazz anthems, courtesy of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, sprung from a seemingly inconsequential instruction: take the New York subway A Train for the quickest way to get to Harlem.

Erickson says he started writing the work, which he describes as light-hearted and upbeat, from a common blues lick and its triadic chord shapes. He reharmonizes it with a contemporary, angular feel. “I wanted to play around with it so it doesn’t sound like the blues and harmonically and structurally it moves drastically away from the original,” he says in an interview with The Utah Review. In a published program note, he adds, “One element of the blues that seems fascinating to me is that the use of a flatted third in blues melodies creates ambiguity as to whether it is really in a major key or minor. I’ve played on that ambiguity, and taken it to unexpected places.”

Steve Erickson.

Jazz and classical music have been a part of Erickson’s entire life. His father taught trumpet and trombone for any years in junior high and high school. In addition to listening to Mozart and Beethoven recordings, the younger Erickson was introduced to jazz greats including Ellington, Gerry Mulligan and Maynard Ferguson “even before I had my first piano lesson,” as he recalls. 

Years before he joined the Air Force, Erickson says that he initially thought that he would never join the military. In the interim, he had earned his master’s degree at Rice University and then was in the midst of his doctoral program at the University of Kansas. Then when he was at Truman State University as director of the jazz studies program in the 1990s, he was in Omaha for an Airmen of Note jazz band concert. “It sounded like the gig I wanted,” he adds. At the age of 35, he enlisted and played for 20 years with the Air Force bands until the mandatory retirement age of 55. Erickson says he does not miss the hustle and bustle of living in the Washington, D.C. area and was happy too return with his wife to Utah, to enjoy, as he mentions, “the peace of living among the mountains.”

For more information about all events, see the Utah Arts Festival website. Ticket information can be found here.

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