National Park Service: Centennial Commisioned Work
In the spring of 2015, Matt Hampsey approached me with an idea to commemorate the 100th birthday of the National Park Service with an album; an album that embodied the ideals behind the creation of the National Park Service. Matt and I knew each other, having played together at the Old U.S. Mint on Esplanade Avenue in New Orleans a few times before. We talked on the phone a few times and discussed the project. We set out to record an album that celebrated the ideals of the NPS: that goal being to “explore, learn and protect.” I wanted to put these ideals into song, melodically, harmonically and rhythmically: to explore the beauty of the parks and within oneself, to learn about the nation through its culture and nature, and to protect these ideals and parks throughout the USA. With these ideals in mind, Matt put me in charge with the position of musical director and producer of the album. I was in charge of writing, arranging and performing with the band. He put me in touch with Jeff Wolin, a park ranger and singer-songwriter from Colorado. Jeff wrote lyrics and a few melodies to songs that he wanted to put to song and asked what I could do with them.
After about a month of intensive writing and arranging charts, we had about fourteen songs ready to record. We split up the songs and sessions evenly among three different recording studios with three different engineers around Louisiana. The core NPS Centennial Band featured myself on vocals and piano, Matt Hampsey on guitar, Michael Harris on vocals and bass, and Joe Stolarick on drums. Our inaugural recording session began on July 19th at Dockside Studio in Maurice, LA with the incredible Tony Daigle at the helm and put down three solid days of recording. Simone Brown joined us for our session there and sang marvelously. My favorite tune that we recorded at Steve and Cezanne’s studio was a track called Lighthouse, check it out here. Dockside was perfect because we stayed at the studio out in Middle-of-nowhere, LA and it was just what we needed.
Next month we moved to the incomparable Studio in the Country in Bogalusa, LA. This studio is just as much of a national park as Yellowstone or Yosemite–Kansas recorded Carry on My Wayward Son here, Dust in the Wind, Stevie Wonder recorded Journey through the Secret Life of Plants here–and we loved every minute of it. It was quiet out there, no cell service and beautiful. We tracked a couple more tunes with the great Ben Mumphrey and spent a few days out there. I love Denali Snow Patrol and Happy Birthday NPS, check those out here.
The last leg of our recording journey ended back home in New Orleans at the Music Shed. Here we finished the rest of the album, from overdubs to tracking. Jazmarae Beebe flew in from Seattle, WA and sang a few tunes. She’s brilliant; you can check her out here. Jeff Wolin flew out from Colorado and I met him for the first time and he sang on a couple, too. Ben Lorio engineered this session and was so very helpful. Cool track from our days at the Music Shed has got to be Half-Shaven Runnin’ Nature Lovin’ Commander in Chief simply because of the name. All of these engineers were spectacular; each helping us along the way with their expertise and know-how. When we finished at the Music Shed, we sent the tracks to the great Danny Kadar, wonderful producer, engineer and mixer local to New Orleans, and mixed it. He sent us bounces and talked through what needed to be done, safe to say Danny did a fabulous job.
We shot a music video for our song Happy Birthday NPS with some New Orleans jazz giants in late February. Leroy Jones, trumpeter and vocalist who has got his wonderful quintet and performs with Harry Connick Jr., and Shannon Powell, drummer and vocalist who has performed with anyone from Ellis Marsalis to Dr. John, are featured performers in this music video. Bud Holmes, a North Carolinian tuba and sousaphonist and park ranger, Matt Hampsey, guitar, and the Shades of Praise gospel choir also perform with us here.
In early March 2016, Matt, Michael and I were playing at French Quarter Festival in New Orleans. We got to talking about the album, which was about to come out, and figuring out what to do next. Talks of a tour of the National Parks came about to celebrate the centennial. Jon Beebe, another New Orleans Jazz Ranger, has been in charge of setting these tours up. The NPS Centennial Band recently took a trip with brilliant saxophonist Brent Rose and drummer Peter Varnado up to Maryland and New Hampshire for three performances at the C & O Canal National Park and Saint-Gaudens National Park up in New England. In Cornish, NH at Saint-Gaudens, we had the pleasure of featuring two New Hampshire natives: Fred Haas, an incredible saxophonist and professor at Dartmouth College, and the multi-talented David Westphalen on trombone and bass. They both joined us for a clinic and a performance and it was just fun. Check out some of Fred’s work which can be found here.
So, now, the NPS Centennial Band is a traveled, touring group that can be found in a park near you! Please take a listen to our album, Songs for Junior Rangers Vol. 2, and check your park–we may be visiting you soon!