Introducing: The Hard Modes

I am beyond excited to be introducing my new video game music/jazz ensemble, The Hard Modes, today. If you've been following me in any form, you probably have seen that, for years, I have been teasing an arrangement project of some sorts--this is it! 

The arrangements that I composed for The Hard Modes are, to my knowledge, the first of their kind in that they are based off of modern jazz harmonic, rhythmic, and improvisational stylings. For instance, while most 'jazz'-based game remixes are based off of smooth, lounge, and pop sounds, and while others have gotten closer with higher levels of musicianship - e.g., the Super Soul Bros. and the OCRemix project Chronology - there haven't been groups that have taken video game tracks and applied modern jazz writing to them.

The closest I've heard is Insane in the Rain's work, but even then, in my opinion, with the exception of the Giants Steps/Tetris mash-up, I hear the work more as solid 'covers' using jazz instrumentation rather than fully fledged arrangements. The Hard Modes are more "Uematsu meets Mingus" than "Dexter Gordon plays the head of Aerith's Theme"; more of a deconstruction and fusing of styles than a Postmodern Jukebox-esque take on VGM.

And, by the way, this is not to take away anything from the aforementioned groups! They all have done and continue to do great work that I enjoy listening to, and Insane in the Rain, for instance, blows me away with how much content he releases on the regular.

Overall, I'm looking to push the envelope as far as what's possible. To me these new arrangements represent a huge leap from what's already been accomplished, and I hope that it unlocks the latent potential that jazz and video game music when worked together. They're really a natural fit for each other: some of the greatest game music composers were/are influenced by jazz, and the creative writing that they have accomplished - especially in terms of melodicism - lends itself to further development by way of the jazz language. So much of jazz is built off of the Great American Songbook, and there have been plenty of uncanny arrangements of modern pop tunes--there is no reason why video game music, especially in today's culture, shouldn't be getting the same treatment.

I hope, too, that this music expands the horizons of both jazz lovers and gamers to levels previously not thought possible. For the former, it's about putting fantastic melodies on display and developing their appreciation of works that they may have just written off because they were written for games. For the latter, it's about introducing them to jazz art music in a way that's more accessible to them, much like how contemporary symphonic works in games have built a bridge to classical music and film scores.

Technically this project started brewing as far back as 2009. I had a college senior recital that year that featured my original compositions and arrangements, one of which was a mash up of the Proto Man and Gemini Man themes from Mega Man III (I dug up the pic on the left from when we were playing the Proto Man section of the arrangement!).

A few years later, I was influenced to continue to arrange video game tunes for jazz ensembles. The main issue - both logistically and motivationally - was that I didn't have a group with which to play the tunes. So, while I had days where I was really into laying down some ideas, everything else seemed to take precedence, which pushed back completion.

Flash forward to 2016, when I moved to Charlottesville. Now that I was back in action with playing my horn and I had folks to perform with, I decided to get serious about finishing the arrangements I had started. I broke down a couple of the tunes to test out preliminarily as a trio at our regular Tuesday night gig, and then had the good fortune of being able to take off 3 weeks of work unpaid to work on the other tunes at the beginning of 2017.

So far I've arranged 7 tunes that are ready to debut (6 of which were completed in February and 1 of which I finished just last week). The first one is a revamped version of my '09 arrangement, and the specifics of the rest will be revealed later. At the moment I can tease that 4 of them are from Square games and 2 others are from titles that were released in the last 5 years!

You may wonder why it took so long to get these tunes played--mostly it came down to aligning people's schedules. Getting 6 adults together to play music is more difficult than it would seem--life is quite the barrier! But in the end it's worked out great.

The sextet currently consists of Charlottesville locals Brandon Walsh (trumpet), Dhara Goradia (bass), Trevor Williams (vibes), Nick Berkin (keys), and Garrett Moore (drums), with me on tenor and soprano saxophones. I'm thrilled to have this great group come together around this stuff.

The debut of our music is taking place in Charlottesville at C'ville Coffee on September 30 from 7-9pm, and there's a cover charge of $7. If you are planning to come to the show, definitely say hey during the set break or afterwards! You can RSVP for the event on Facebook here.

After the debut I'll be pumped to share the future plans I have for these - and other - arrangements as well. Look forward to it!