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Making Pocket Guides: My Debut Album

In 2019, I was selected by the ASCAP Foundation to premiere four original tunes at the Newport Jazz Festival. I formed a quintet of fellow musicians whom I’ve had the pleasure of working with over the years, which turned into an eclectic ensemble: Zosha Warpeha on Norwegian Hardanger fiddle and violin, Juan Olivares on clarinet, Dan Montgomery on bass, Evan Hyde on drums, and myself on piano. It was an absolute honor and joy to be playing the same day as some of my musical idols—Herbie Hancock, Darcy James Argue, and The Bad Plus, to name a few. Writing for and playing in this group provided an opportunity to investigate my musical heritage and share my voice with a new audience, inspiring me to explore the idea of creating a debut album of original music.

Performing on the Newport Storyville Stage with My Quintet

We had planned to go to the studio the following year, but due to the pandemic, the recording was delayed. I used that extra time to develop the pieces I wrote for the Newport set, write a few more, and expand the band to include other musicians from around the world. 


In addition to the core band above, we had David Bernot from Denver on saxes, Derek Ganong from Idaho on trumpet, Magnus Murphy Joelson from Norway on trombone, Jack Bogard from Indiana on violin and mandolin, Joy Adams from Denver on cello, Jonah Udall from New York on guitar, and Sam Gautier on auxiliary percussion. Denver-based vocalist John Boggs joined as a guest artist on one track. I wanted a band with people from all over, from every step of the journey (the band includes connections from the William Patterson jazz camp I did in high school, Aspen Music Festival, my time living in Norway, and all the steps of my education in Miami, Houston, and Boulder).


The compositions on Pocket Guides take elements from traditional Norwegian folk music, modern jazz, and contemporary classical music tied together by a strong sense of storytelling. This music has personal significance for me, as I studied folk music and my family history in Norway on a Fulbright Grant three years ago. This album acts as a kind of travelogue reflecting my experiences living and studying in Norway, Korea, Colorado, Texas, and New Jersey and bringing together diverse musical experiences. Each of the tunes on the album has a unique backstory and has developed and changed over the years.

“Ymir’s Bones” was inspired by a trip to Gothenburg during my year living in Norway. At the time, I was reading a lot of Norse mythology, including Neil Gaiman’s take on the Prose Edda. I visited the island of Styrsö to a prehistoric site called Stora Rös, set upon a large rocky slab overlooking the ocean. In the Norse myths, Snorri Sturluson describes the giant Ymir who made the world: “From his flesh comes the earth, from his blood comes the ocean, from his hair the trees, from his brains the clouds, from his skull the heavens, and from his bones come the mountains and rocks.” As I was sitting on the rocks in Sweden, I pictured myself on sitting on Ymir’s, the world building giant’s, bones. “Ymir's Bones” is inspired by the stomp and swagger of this Ymir, with a stilted second line march, and features, fittingly, the trombone on a solo. 


This piece evolved from a small combo piece that was performed in Norway into a big band piece that was read by the NDR Big Band in Hamburg. Vincent Gardner, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Trombonist, played a version with the Ithaca College Jazz Band in 2019. I then scaled the piece down again for the Newport Quintet, and gradually combined elements from all the arrangements I had made, showcasing the clarinet and fiddle in particular.


The next work, “Hongdae After Midnight,” evolved from a piece I had written for the Aspen Contemporary Ensemble, combining Korean folk music, J Dilla-style hip hop, and Norwegian fiddle music, called "Jejuholmen" — a portmanteau of Jeju (an island in Korea) and Holmenkollen, a neighborhood in Oslo. The piece was a little overambitious and difficult, so I simplified it but focused in on the 7 hip-hop feel, renaming it after a bustling neighborhood in Seoul, South Korea which I visited on a trip in 2017. I played an earlier arrangement of the piece for the Newport set, as well as a small group at the University of Colorado Boulder, before adding the instrumentation that is present now.

“A Lost Pair of Kites,” came out of a piece a wrote for my I wrote for my mother’s service in 2015. I originally composed the piece for cello and piano, with my brother Matt playing the cello. Since then, I performed the piece at Newport Jazz Festival with my quintet and expanded the piece to include Hardanger fiddle, the traditional folk instrument from Norway, inspired my mother’s Norwegian heritage. The title comes from a quote from Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory that my dad read during my mom’s service and has a lot of personal significance to me. It’s dedicated to my mom, and you can hear the original performed at the funeral service here.


“Bubble in a River” started as a concert work that I wrote at Rice University for a mixed ensemble and baritone Alex Rosen (listen here). The piece sets a bit text from E.H. Gombrich's book A Little History of the World, which I found at a bookstore in Chelsea Market in New York. The text compares the struggles of each human in history as a single bubble in the wave of a river. In the work, I translated some of the imagery from the text into music, incorporating elements of bubble sound FX and improvisation. The work already had some inherent groove, so it was easy adapting it to more of a jazz combo setting. John Boggs, a frequent collaborator and good friend, brings a very agile and vocal style for the piece perfect for the genre-blending I’m going for.

“Hvalsang” ("Whale Song" in Norwegian) was inspired in part by my partner and I listening to animal podcasts on our long road trips in Colorado. The piece began as a big band commission for Andy Clausen and the New York Youth Symphony Big Band, which was performed at the Times Center. I adapted for a brief recital in Colorado (see video below) which ended up being the version that showed up on the album.


“Old Barney” went through many iterations, starting as a brief head tune I wrote in Norway for a jam session, which was expanded and revised many times before getting a final makeover during the pandemic for this album. Its title comes from the lighthouse on the end of Long Beach Island in New Jersey.

“Fellfields” is based on a rhythmic experiment I wrote for a music theory conference on rhythm that was titled “Off-Kilter.” The piece was original for a small jazz trio. Given my love of the weird, uneven rhythmic elements in Norwegian folk music, I experimented with noteheads of different sizes to create a non-specifically “longer” and “shorter” beat to emulate the consistent unevenness of Norwegian folk music. I didn’t want to write precise 3/16 beats, as that would feel robotic. I came across the title, “Fellfields” while driving through Iceland and looking up at the scree slopes along the side of the road, and the name stuck.

“Edvard” began as my Fulbright final project and a commission for the Mastodont Big Band at the Norwegian Academy of Music. In Fall 2017, I took a funded trip to Bergen to immerse myself in the city where my great grandfather, Edvard Johannson, lived. I brought a field recorder and camera and captured a bunch of on-the-spot recordings of environmental sounds and sights in and around the city. This accompanied the premiere performance of the work, for mega big band, in February 2018.


I refined the piece and added hardanger fiddle, accordion, folk drum, and a video made by my friend John Albert Harris for another performance in April 2018. In advance of the Newport gig, I scaled the piece back, then, kind of like with Ymir’s Bones, rigged the whole thing together and combined all of the different versions into the one you hear for the final record.

With Colin Bricker

The most challenging part of creating Pocket Guides was running a crowdfunding campaign on IndieGogo, during which we raised $14,000 after reaching out to our networks and sending out a lot of private messages. We hit Mighty Fine Studios in Denver in January 2022 to record the pieces with recording engineers Colin Bricker and Loren Dorland, breaking it up into two recording days and three mixing days. We rehearsed the music and played a set at the Muse Performance Space in Lafayette, Colorado before heading to the studio. Colin and Loren’s lazer-sharp ears made the recording process smooth and easy, creating some isolation for the individual parts and giving us more control over the mix.


We were also fortunate to recruit artist Ryan Schröder, a painter whom I met at the Fulbright Berlin Conference, to design a beautiful watercolor and ink print for the album cover. The album was manufactured and distributed by Origin/OA2 records and John Bishop in Seattle, who helped design a clean album cover and get the music some great press reviews.


Listen to the entirety of the Pocket Guides on Bandcamp, Spotify, Soundcloud, or the webpage on my site!

Candid in the Studio
Cellist Joy Adams
Magnus Murphy Joelson and Derek Ganong on some Harmon "Wahs"
David Bernot and Juan Gabriel Olivares on Articulations

Dan Montgomery from the bass booth
Colin Bricker
Drummer Evan Hyde


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