A native Southern Californian, Roger Burn was a multi-talented musician; a master vibraphonist, pianist/keyboard player, drummer/percussionist, singer, composer, arranger, meticulous music copyist, band leader & music publisher. He possessed perfect pitch and began playing the piano by ear at an early age. He began his career as a drummer, starting at the age of eleven. By the time he was fourteen, he quickly picked up the piano and soon after, the vibraphone.
He began practicing two hours a day, working his way up to five hours a day, at one point. He insisted on keeping his windows closed, even in hot summers, (with no air conditioning) as he was concerned - “I wouldn’t want someone walking by on the sidewalk to hear me while I’m practicing.” He was a perfectionist.
His high school band director, Ed Wolfe, describes Roger as being verbally “outgoing” and “perhaps not too subtle” as he recalls their first conversation:
“Mr. Wolfe, I’m Roger Burn. I play percussion, and I have a question. Can you improve this jazz program so that it will be as good as Robin Snyder’s at Bonita HS? If not, I’m going to transfer over there for my last two years.”
“Hello, Roger. Nice to meet you!”
“Roger and other students would come down to the apartment and play Risk. After the other students left, Roger would always ask questions about music theory. Sometimes he would stay quite late. His parents, Ed and Joyce seemed to always know where he was and did not seem to object, but since we had a Jazz Band rehearsal every morning at 6:30, I would have to ‘throw him out’ often so that we could get some sleep,” said Wolfe.
“He was not particularly interested in the traditional harmony of the common practice period, but when we talked about Twentieth Century techniques, his ears really perked up. He learned about tritone substitutions, extensions and altered chords, and suddenly there was an interest in learning to play piano as he was already becoming quite proficient on vibraphone,” relayed Wolfe.
Wolfe recalled, “He was not interested in learning technique from the Czerny book I provided, or practicing any of the “adult beginning” pieces I provided. He simply wanted to improvise and learn new chord voicings...(he was especially in love with the dominant seventh with a sharp nine or other altered variations he could use in the blues). He wanted to learn how to arrange, so I “loaned” him my Mancini Sounds and Scores textbook. He kept it for the rest of his life...So it began!”
“I did not learn until later that he had begun writing out (by hand) a fake book of jazz tunes that he called ‘The Good Book’. He was proud to exclaim to me that these tunes had ‘the right chords’ and were not like some of those other fake books. In addition to many of his favorite jazz standards (over 150 pages), are some 20 original compositions, some of which were performed by the San Dimas High School jazz combo. “Animal Blues” was written for his friend and bass player, Rusty Houts, and “Gerswintite” was an opportunity to show off some new chord voicings he liked,” said Wolfe.
“It was plain to see Roger was a musical prodigy,” said his sister, Elaine Burn. “He would sit daily with a pencil & ruler while he effortlessly re-wrote all the chord changes in the Real Book . He claimed ‘The chords are all wrong!’ ”
Wolfe recalls, “Those who spoke with Roger often may have observed that his life was basically one long run-on sentence, with no punctuation in site! He was opinionated, biased, driven and always outspoken, but he was also fiercely loyal, disciplined, caring and compassionate to those who he felt deserved it. He also had a great sense of humor and a sense of right and wrong ...Roger was right, and the rest of us ...had some work to do!”
Wolfe relates the following story, “Another time, in Reno, Roger did not make it back to the hotel from the Basie performance at the Pioneer Theater in time for curfew. I went back to the Pioneer and after some searching, found him backstage talking to some of the Basie sidemen....that was Roger!”
“In Roger’s senior year, he was leaning towards Cal State Northridge as a choice under the jazz direction of Joel Leach. He was particularly angry that freshmen would have to play in the marching band, frustrated by this, he chose to leave after only one year in the college program. The rest is basically known by all of his professional friends and acquaintances,” said Wolfe.
“Over the years, Roger and I remained close. I used him as a guest soloist with my bands, and he was fiercely loyal to me personally as an ‘educator who knew and did it the right way’. He was a good man, and I love him and miss him,” exclaimed Wolfe.
He studied with the best in the field - Freddie Gruber for drums and Victor Feldman for vibes. He was self-taught on the piano and keyboards, taking only one piano lesson!
He drew musical inspiration from the greats; Victor Feldman, Lionel Hampton and Red Norvo. He idolized Buddy Rich, Louie Belson and Steve Gadd. He was influenced by Art Tatum, Fats Waller, Oscar Petterson and Gershwin. His modern taste and appreciation included the Yellowjackets, especially Jimmy Haslip, bass player of Yellowjackets, producer & longtime friend, Pat Metheny, Sting, Quincy Jones, Bella Fleck and Peter Gabriel.
He began working professional gigs at the age of sixteen in Los Angeles. He would spend entire Saturdays hunting down rare jazz albums at Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, adding to his album collection of over 1,000 albums, all in alphabetical order.
He formed several bands and served as the bandleader. His first band, in the 1980s, was “Triple Spec.” The name referring to the music industry phrase, “on spec”, meaning that many projects are on speculation, thus “Triple Spec” was born. They played often at Cafe Cordiale on Ventura Boulevard in Los Angeles.
Years later, he formed a new band, “Shapes”, which was a platform for his contemporary jazz compositions as well as for others in the band; Dave Derge (drums), Mike Higgins (guitar) and Andy Suzuki (saxophones & flute) and Dean Taba (bass.) His music was syncopated and sophisticated. He was constantly blazing his own trail.
Shapes performed in Jakarta at the Java Jazz Festival and then later, on the island of Bali, performing in Indonesia for two weeks. As part of a back up band for Indonesia's own, Dwiki Dharmawan for his 'World Peace Orchestra', he also performed again in Jakarta for the Java Jazz Festival, along with Shapes’ members Andy Suzuki, Tollak Ollestad, along with charter member on percussion, Walfredo Reyes, Jr., who played drumset.
He again played with the World Peace Orchestra at the Temecula Jazz Festival, joined by new Shapes member, Edwin Livingston, on bass. In addition, Jimmy Haslip, of the Yellowjackets & producer of all his albums, played with Shapes on bass, as well as Russ Ferrante on piano, from the Yellowjackets.
Highlights of his career include playing with The Brian Setzer Big Band, Chaka Khan, Lionel Ritchie, Stevie Nicks, Lou Vega, Barry Manilow & Ann Margaret, to name a few. He wrote charts for Mary J. Blige and numerous others.
He played vibraphones on the score of the Academy Award winning film “Sideways” starring Paul Giamatti.
Tragically, cancer took his life at the age of 46. Here’s what he said in his last blog;
“I will NOT shed this mortal coil until I'm satisfied that I've done all that I can, and ladies and gentlemen, I have ONLY begun to do what I feel that I'm called to do, which is to make music. All things considered, I feel VERY fortunate and yes, even an agnostic like myself, feels blessed, too. I'm surrounded by the love and support of so many friends, some of which I never knew even liked me!!!!”
He played and composed music to the very end! He toured Europe, Indonesia and had plans to return.
WE MISS YOU ROGER! We hope to honor you and your beautiful music that we all felt so blessed to hear, with this re-release of your last three albums! God rest your soul!
Elaine, Jimmy and Blue Canoe
“written by Bill Milkowski”.
This Press Release/Liner Notes originally appeared on the inside of the Physical CD packaging.
It was 30 years ago that South Florida guitarist Randy Bernsen burst onto the national scene with Music For Planets, People and Washing Machines, his auspicious debut for MCA Records that featured a lineup of such all-world players as Jaco Pastorius, Peter Erskine, Bob James, Bobby Thomas Jr., Othello Molineaux, Michael Urbaniak and Herbie Hancock. The proverbial hard act to follow, it was succeeded in 1986 by Bernsen’s acclaimed sophomore outing, Mo’ Wasabi, which had Jaco, Erskine and Hancock returning and also featured contributions from the likes of Michael Brecker, Toots Thielemans, Marcus Miller, Steve Gadd and Wayne Shorter. The guitarist completed his MCA trifecta with 1988’s similarly star-studded Paradise Citizens.
From 1990 to 1992, Bernsen was a member of the Zawinul Syndicate, replacing fellow Florida native Scott Henderson in Joe Zawinul’s exotic world music-meets-jazz ensemble and playing on the album Lost Tribes. More recently, he has toured and recorded with the Jaco Pastorius Big Band, appearing on the Jaco tribute albums Word Of Mouth Revisited in 2003 and The Word Is Out in 2006. Over the years, the longtime Fort Lauderdale resident has further showcased his six-string skills and composer-arranger prowess on a series of self-produced small group recordings (most recently 2012’s funky organ trio outing, App Teaser with guest artist John Medeski) while also earning his commercial pilot’s license, writing music for TV and touring through Japan and South East Asia.
GRACE NOTES marks Bernsen’s return to working on a bigger canvas with another all-star cast, including Yellowjackets co-founders Jimmy Haslip and Russell Ferrante, drummers Erskine, Gary Novak and Virgil Donati, keyboardists Scott Kinsey, Mac Chew and Colin James, saxophonist Steve Tavaglione, percussionists Luis Conte, Archie Pena and blues harmonica ace Rockin’ Jake. Florida homeboys Othello Molineaux, Bobby Thomas Jr. and Julius Pastorius (Jaco’s son) also make special guest appearances on his 12th album as a leader.
Co-produced by bassist Haslip, GRACE NOTES travels from a Miles Davis Tutu-era flavored jam to a crackling big band chart with some detours into soul-jazz, smooth jazz, funk, blues and N’awlins second line along the way. “It’s a collection of different musical elements that I’ve explored all coming together into one project,” says the guitarist, whose first road work was with Blood, Sweat & Tears back in 1977. “With Jimmy’s guidance and handpicking some of his L.A. bros for the project, Kinsey, Novak, Russell Ferrante, Virgil Donati and engineer Rich Breen, it all came together. I couldn’t be more pleased!”
Bernsen comes out stinging on the opener, a remake of the Yellowjackets’ slow grooving “Black Top” (from 2009’s Dreamland). While Steve Tavaglione conjures up an ominous Miles muted trumpet vibe on EWI, Novak powers the track with his slamming backbeat alongside Haslip’s slap basslines. Co-composer Ferrante provides some funky clarinet work on the bridge and comps in classic soul-jazz fashion on piano throughout. Randy’s slinky guitar solo pushes the envelope bot in his note and timbre choices, and Tavaglione takes the piece out with some sinuous soprano sax lines at the tag.
An ambitious re-imagining of Freddie Hubbard’s 1970 classic “Red Clay” features some dynamic big band flourishes courtesy of Bernsen’s guitar synth and Tavaglione’s synth horn work. Newcomer Max Boiko also contributes some tasty nuggets on trumpet. Randy shows some facile whammy bar articulation on his solo midway through the piece and also experiments with touches of harmonizer before drummer Erskine engages in a percussive breakdown with Conte’s congas to elevate the proceedings.
Easily his most impressive and personal project since the ‘80s, Bernsen’s star-studded GRACE NOTES has the veteran guitarist-composer covering a myriad of musical bases with confidence, swag and the chops to back it up.
When I convened the first rehearsal of the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra in August of 1999, I had no way of knowing the extent to which this experience would shape the next two decades of my life. I had just moved back to Knoxville after four years in Chicago, and my immediate goal was to create an outlet for my newfound love of writing for big band. I envisioned periodic rehearsals to read new arrangements and perhaps a few gigs at local night clubs. Beyond that, there was no plan. It would just be fun to get together with some of the region’s best players and make music for a couple of hours.
On that first night, the band read all four of the arrangements that I had written to date, plus music by Thad Jones, Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn and perhaps a few others. By the time the rehearsal was within aa month we’d played our first public concert. By December, we had established a regular performance schedule at a local restaurant and started to attract a small following.
We may have continued in this fashion for a while before slowly fizzling out the way that so many similar projects to, but two important early milestones intervened and gave the band a clear sense of purpose. In September of 1999, Keith Brown asked me to write big band arrangements on six Donald Brown composition for the UT student big band’s Spring concert. Although we could not perform those arrangements publicly before the UT debut, the KJO became the laboratory for these new arrangements, allowing me to instantly hear what I had written, and simultaneously creating the beginning of a unique library of music.
The second milestone occurred in January of 2000. The band was wrapping up a rehearsal of the new arrangements when trombonist Don Hough, one of the band’s elder statesmen asked if he could have everyone’s attention. He walked to the front of the band and said, “Ive been in Knoxville for a long time and we’ve never and anything like this before. This band is special and should be treated as such. I propose that we figure out a way to get to Europe next summer to play some festivals.” The response was unanimous. Of course we’d like to go to Europe to perform!
In the months that followed, we hired a travel agent and began making plans for our trip abroad. We recorded the new arrangements, self-released our first CD (The Music of Donald Brown, 2000) and used the recording to secure performance slots for July of 2001 at Jazz a Vienne, the Montreux Jazz Festival and Festival International de Jazz in Ezcaray, Spain. We played as many local and regional gigs as we could, pooling all of the money together toward our common goal. The money that could not be raised through playing gigs was paid from our own pockets.
By the time we returned from our trip, the band was completely transformed. We had found not only a cohesive sound, but also a common purpose. Everyone in the group had a sense of ownership. While the Europe trip was important for galvanizing the band, it was not a sustainable business model. To survive and thrive, we needed to build a local audience to enable us to play regularly in appropriate listening venues. We applied for non-profit status with the mission of promoting jazz in our region, and in early 2002 began presenting concerts featuring notable guest artists alongside the band. By 2006, we’d gained enough traction to begin booking an entire series of events. As of the writing of these notes, our organization presents more than fifty events per year, from free outdoor summer concerts, to ticketed events at venues both large and small.
The music on this disc represents the entire journey. “Back Down In Lu Easy Anna” dates back to the original batch of arrangements, while “The Road Less Traveled” was written this year specifically for this recording. “Woody’n You” was created for a 2003 performance with saxophonist James Moody. We performed with Mulgrew Miller that same year and arranged the chart on “Grew’s Tune” as a result. “The Tennessee Waltz” and “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” were done for a concert we called, “Country and Bluegrass Meet the Big Baand” in 2019. “Ask Me Now”, “Rhythm-A-Ning” and “Monk’s Mood” came from a 2012 Thelonious Monk tribute concert featuring pianist Eric Reed and “At Last” was commissioned by Doc Severinsen at the end of a hour tour that we played with him in 2015. In 2018, we performed with guitarist Bill Frisell, leading to the orchestration of his beautiful take on “What The World Needs Now”. And a 2019 performance with Jazzmela Horn spawned the chart on Jimmy Rowle’s’ haunting ballad “The Peacocks”.
The guest soloists each have unique connections to the journey as well. Eric Reed, Michael Dease, Carmen Bradford, and Gregory Tardy have each performed with the band on one or more occasions over the years. They made stunning contributions and we are grateful for their willingness to participate with us in this effort.
Thomas Heflin was a student at UT when the band was formed. He quickly earned a spot in the trumpet section and although he has since relocated around the country several times, he has continued to perform with the band whenever his schedule allows. Guitarist Mike Seal was also a student at UTK when the band was formed. Although he had never performed with the group before this recording, I had worked with him on various projects over the years and knew that he would add the perfect touch to “Tennessee Waltz”, “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” and “What The World Needs Now”.
Saxophonist Greg Tardy was brought in from NYC to guest on our “Blues Man From Memphis” recording in 2004. He mentioned in a passing that Knoxville was a beautiful place and that he could see himself living here. This started a conversation that led to him being hired as Assistant Professor of Saxophone at The University Of Tennessee in 2010. He has been a regular member of the KJO ever since and has been a huge shot in the arm for our band and our town.
Of course, none of this would have been possible without the selfless dedication of the gentlemen in the orchestra. They have gone above and beyond, year after year, honing their craft and giving of their time and energy. Maintaining a high level of musical skill in a town like Knoxville requires a very special sort of dedication, since the scene is not large enough for musicians to support themselves by performing alone. The band is as good as it is because these men have continued to choose the road less traveled. They have ultimately created something that is much larger than the sum of its parts, and I could not be more proud to call them all friends. This past twenty years have flown by. Here’s to twenty more! - Vance Thompson (Leader/Director of the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra)