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Mike Conrad’s Fertile Soil Suite Debuts This Sunday In Cedar Falls

Join the Iowa Jazz Composers Orchestra for the premiere of a new jazz suite Sunday, June 6 at 6 p.m. in Cedar Falls at the River Place Plaza stage.
Photo Courtesy of Mike Conrad
Join the Iowa Jazz Composers Orchestra for the premiere of a new jazz suite Sunday, June 6 at 6 p.m. in Cedar Falls at the River Place Plaza stage.

Sunday evening, June 6, between 6 and 7:30 p.m., grab your folding chair, blankets, picnic basket, liquid libations and friends. The Iowa Jazz Composers Orchestra will premiere “Fertile Soil Suite” and other new jazz works by Iowa composers in Cedar Falls.

After a long COVID-19 rest, the Iowa Jazz Composers Orchestra (IJCO) is back!

The “Fertile Soil Suite” is finally unearthed this Sunday evening at 6 at a free concert held at the River Place Plaza’s outdoor amphitheater stage in downtown Cedar Falls.

Mike Conrad, an award-winning jazz composer and artistic director, founded the IJCO and composed his “Fertile Soil Suite” especially for the IJCO and its players.

"I wanted to draw attention to the fact that there are -- amazing artists and musicians doing incredible things right here,” Conrad says. “Furthermore, this ensemble creates an outlet for composers like me to write new music -- a reason to get excited about composing. When you know that there's an outstanding band primed to play your music, it lights a fire that fuels the creative process.”

Currently, the Iowa Jazz Composers Orchestra is made up of 17 musicians including five saxophonists also doubling on woodwinds, four trumpeters, four trombonists, and one musician each on guitar, piano, bass, and drums.

Big bands play an enormous role in jazz history.

“They enjoyed incredible popularity before the mid-century shift to smaller groups, as the primary vehicles for jazz performance. Today, since the innovations of composers like Duke Ellington and Maria Schneider, modern big bands represent the confluence of composed music and improvised music at the highest level.”

About "Fertile Soil Suite”

The vision for the “Fertile Soil Suite” lies in Conrad’s own roots. After accepting a job at the University of Northern Iowa (Assistant Professor of Jazz Studies and Music Education), the return to his home state inspired him.

“In addition to my quest to create some music that felt uniquely Iowan, I wanted this set of pieces to be a showcase for this new band, (IJCO) which represents the best that Iowa has to offer in terms of musical artistry and creativity,” he said.“By putting Iowa at the center of the project in every way, from the themes that inspired the composition itself, to the Iowa-based musicians, to the composer who calls Iowa home, I wanted to draw attention to the fact that there are great musicians and artists here with creative meaningful things to express.”

The project was funded by a grant from the Iowa Arts Council. Conrad says he tried to compose like his “hero Duke Ellington liked to compose” by being closely attune to the particular gifts of his special IJCO players.

Conrad’s “Fertile Soil Suite” starts with a tribute to Iowa’s position as the first-in-the-nation caucus state for U.S. presidential elections. Conrad’s opening “Battleground” is complete with sizzling short dissonances and aggressive tempos. IJCO’s lead tenor Chris Merz grabs the soprano saxophone, and challenges Dave Rezek on trumpet to a fiery musical debate.

The IJCO rehearses ahead of their concert premiering "Fertile Soil Suite."
Photo Courtesy of Mike Conrad
The IJCO rehearses ahead of their concert premiering "Fertile Soil Suite."

Conrad dives into Iowa history by naming the second movement directly after the state. “‘Ioway’ is based on themes taken from field recordings of Native American Siouan people. The name of our state is Native American in origin, and this piece is meant to honor the tribes indigenous to the area we now know as Iowa.” IJCO’s Jen Tiede will appear on alto saxophone, along with Steve Wheeler on flugelhorn, Mike Conrad on piano, and Simon Harding on flute and baritone saxophone. They will bring this unique movement to life. He adds, “‘Ioway’ has a pastoral and earthy feel to it, with multiple sections consisting primarily of slower tempos.”

“Perhaps it’s from constantly being referred to as a ‘flyover state’ or from one too many condescending corn jokes, but ‘there’s an Iowa kind of special chip-on-the-shoulder attitude,’ which Meredith Willson points out in the song, ‘Iowa Stubborn,’” Conrad says. “I tried to tap into this attitude to inspire the composition of the “Fertile Soil Suite” in an effort to prove that we don’t always need to look to New York City or Chicago for beautiful, high-quality, creative music.”

Livestock and laughter are the impetus behind the next piece called “Hog Heaven.”

“‘Hog Heaven’ is meant to be a humorous title acknowledging the fact that one-third of the nation’s hogs are raised in Iowa. This piece is a fun, swinging romp that features three trombone soloists trading bluesy ideas.”

The “Fertile Soil Suite” digs into the Iowa state of mind in the last movement called “Flyover.” The IJCO’s Robert Espe on alto saxophone, along with trumpeter Jon Ailabouni and guitarist Steve Grismore take the leads.

Conrad and the IJCO have been waiting for more than a year now to perform the “Fertile Soil Suite”, which was originally planned to debut at The Mill in Iowa City.

“The timing of the scheduled premiere and recording session (March 2020 at the Mill in Iowa City) could not have been worse, as the pandemic shut everything down just as we were supposed to unleash this music for the first time. I feel a great sense of excitement, relief, and gratitude to finally be able to share this music with the public. We are looking forward to a recording session (audio and video) in August that will allow us to present the suite to a broader audience online,” he says.

Other Performances Included In the Concert

In addition to Conrad’s “Fertile Soil Suite,” the IJCO’s concert also includes at least four works by other illustrious Iowa composers.

John Rapson’s “Street” grabs sounds from “On Green Dolphin Street” and “On the Street Where You Live” to weave together a fresh creation. Rapson not only is a top-notch composer, but he is also an outstanding trombonist, pianist, recording artist, and an UI School of Music emeritus faculty member.

“Pagan Pie,” is the invention of saxophonist, soloist, composer, band-leader, clinician, recording artist, and UNI’s Professor of Jazz Studies and Director of Jazz Band 1, Chris Merz. “Pagan Pie” isolates out the band members from Merz’s Christopher’s Very Happy Band. Merz, Conrad, Drew Morton on bass, and Dave Tiede on drums form a band within the IJCO band.

The IJCO will also include Merz’s beautifully gentle yet moody piece, christened after David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest.”

In 2003, prior Sioux City native and presently lead trumpeter for the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, Ryan Kiser, composed his “Effing Blues.” Composer, arranger, band leader, performer, UNI emeritus faculty Director of Jazz Studies and Jazz Band One, along with being the founder and leader of the internationally acclaimed Orquesta Alto Maiz, Bob Washut took the melody and ran with it. Washut, who knows a great tune when he hears it, adeptly reserved a bit of time for saxophone and numerous band member solos to highlight this cool, bluesy-big-band treat.

“Credits Music,” is the brainchild of former Runnels, Iowa, native, Juilliard graduate, composer, arranger, performer, and leader of the Nate Sparks Big Band, Nate Sparks. Sparks generated an upbeat big band piece christened, “Credits Music.” “Credits Music” represents the glorious refrain that serenades the winner following a big Mario Kart video game victory.

If time allows, the IJCO will continue to dig deep into their big-band-folders for some more musical treats featuring some of the best jazz musicians and jazz composers that the state of Iowa has to offer. The “Fertile Soil Project” and concert has been supported, in part, by the Iowa Arts Council, a division of the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

This Sunday evening, June 6, between 6 and 7:30 p.m., before you head out to the River Place Plaza stage overlooking the river in downtown Cedar Falls, be sure to grab your folding chair, blankets, picnic basket, liquid libations and friends. The Iowa Jazz Composers Orchestra, featuring Conrad’s “Fertile Soil Suite” premiere and other new jazz works by Iowa composers, will be presented at a free concert. Food and beverages will also be available for purchase onsite from Cottonwood Canyon.

Jacqueline Halbloom is a Sr. Music Producer and Classical Music Host