The Presence of Melody: John Petrucelli

Saxophonist John Petrucelli presents a new suite, Presence

John Petrucelli. Photography by David Bernabo.

In his Northside apartment, saxophonist John Petrucelli plays an audio file from his cell phone. A whistled melody backed by street noise springs from the tiny speaker. When the clip ends, Petrucelli grabs a nearby laptop and opens a file in Sibelius, a music notation program. The simple melody is now ensconced in digital strings, horns, and hi-hat. The arrangement adds depth and context to the melody. Completing this unique view of the life cycle of a composition, a week later in the upstairs rehearsal room of the New Hazlett Theater, a string quartet and a few members of Petrucelli’s jazz quintet are working through the arrangements for Presence, the second performance in the New Hazlett Theater’s CSA Series, which will be performed and recorded for release on Thursday, December 7 at the New Hazlett Theater.

Presence is a suite of compositions for jazz quintet and string quartet, an ensemble arrangement that is a new challenge for Petrucelli, but one that has echoes throughout jazz’s history. Big Bands of the 1920s, 30s, and 40s often employed string players, but Charlie Parker’s 1950 recording, Charlie Parker with Strings, legitimized the idea of pairing a jazz combo with a string section. Soon after, Clifford Brown, Paul Desmond, and Wes Montgomery all released albums with strings, mostly to great popularity. In more contemporary settings, the German ECM label, which was founded to bring the sound of classical music to jazz, has been releasing some fascinating jazz with strings albums with Eberhard Weber’s inventive The Colours of Chloe to Arild Andersen’s Hyperborean and Vijay Iyer’s stark Mutations.

“That’s been one of the big themes for me — jazz connecting with other genres,” says Petrucelli.

In 2010, after living in New Orleans, Petrucelli entered the Master of Music program at Rutgers University in New Jersey as a graduate student studying performance. While at school, he met jazz pianist and musicologist Lewis Porter, and started a second master’s degree in Jazz History and Research. Petrucelli landed a monthly residency at Somethin’ Jazz Club (now Club Bonafide) in the east side of New York City and formed a band. Guitarist Peter Park and drummer Gusten Rudolph joined the band and emerged as strong forces in Petrucelli’s musical life. In quintet form with pianist Victor Gould and bassist Alex Claffy, the group recorded the exciting and well-produced double album The Way and did an Asian tour as a trio to support the release.

While recording The Way, Petrucelli relocated to Pittsburgh to begin his doctoral studies at University of Pittsburgh. “I started studying composition with Geri Allen and Amy Williams simultaneously. Taking lessons with both of these incredible composer/pianists changed my writing and my perspective on music.” Sadly, Allen, who performed and recorded alongside jazz legends like Ornette Coleman, Paul Motian, and Charlie Haden, passed away this summer, but Petrucelli was able to play with Allen at the famed NYC jazz venue, Village Vanguard. Three compositions in Presence were written while studying with Allen. “Her mentorship inspired me to connect my musical upbringing in jazz with others musics and other musicians.”

For the New Hazlett Theater CSA performance, Petrucelli will invite a few local faces into the mix.

Heavyweight bassist Paul Thompson (of Thoth Trio, Opek) and pianist Brett Williams will join the trio of Petrucelli, Park, and Rudolph to round out the quintet. A string quartet will include violinists Ashley Freeburn and Melissa Hernandez, violist Olga Taimonov, and cellist Katya Janpoladyan. Freeburn and Janpoladyan can also be found playing in the impressive Kassia Ensemble. Sound designer Angela Baughman will be working with Petrucelli on what he calls “electronic meditations.”

To see the results, plan on attending John Petrucelli’s Presence on December 7 at the New Hazlett Theater. Tickets and additional information here.