Travis Wesley

Pianist, Recording Artist, Recording Engineer, Composer, Educator & Musicologist

Category Archives: "Around The Horn"

Cycle By Three Press Release by Scott Yanow

Posted on 3 July, 2013  in Around The Horn



The piano-bass-drums trio has been given new life in jazz in recent years by the Bad Plus, Brad Mehldau and the late Esbjorn Svensson in EST. While Travis Wesley’s previous CD Natural Diversion paid tribute to such pianists as Red Garland, Wynton Kelly, Erroll Garner and Ahmad Jamal, Cycle By Three is a giant step forward. His playing is strikingly original and his interplay with bassist Toby Curtright and drummer Tom Marko during a program filled with colorful originals is consistently impressive.


“The music crosses over several genres,” says Wesley, “and I hope that it will be attractive not just to jazz enthusiasts but to many others. We wanted to modernize the sound of the piano trio, break some rules and display our own artistic voices. Drummer Tom Marko is very supportive, solid, and his musical comments are tasty and stylistically appropriate. Toby Curtright’s approach to the bass lies somewhere between the sounds of Scott LaFaro and Jaco Pastorius. His sound is perfect for this group’s concept.” Many of the selections have Wesley’s left hand and bassist Curtright stating the melodies together, giving the group an easily identifiable sound.


The pianist contributed six pieces to Cycle By Three. “Prelude” and “Postlude” bookend the set with identical themes (based off of Chopin’s “Prelude in E Minor #4”) that are interpreted in different ways. “Keeper Of Keys” has a melody line inspired by Bach, a floating quality and a backbeat that brings the piece to a climax. “Fading Friends” features the creative use of a hip hop groove that is soulful, joyful and a bit funky while still including a lot of improvisation.  “Song For Madelynne” (dedicated to Wesley’s daughter) is the longest piece of the set. It has a catchy background and a creative drum solo by Marko. “Memoriam” is a hyper and inventive performance dedicated to Esbjorn Svensson and EST.


Bassist Toby Curtright brought in two songs that are also on Cycle By Three. Both works, “But He Himself Was Broken” and “For Us, This Is The End Of All Stories,” are instrumentals that have religious themes. The former uses Curtright’s bowed bass and repeptious figures from the piano very effectively while the latter is a ballad that is reminiscent of Pat Metheny in its harmonies. Also included on Cycle By Three is a lyrical, modernized and quietly emotional version of the Rodgers & Hart classic “Spring Is Here.”


Travis Wesley was born and raised in Bloomington, Illinois. He began taking piano lessons when he was ten and, although he was most interested in classic rock at the time, he soon discovered jazz through his piano teacher. “Jazz is where I come from. The commitment and artistry that it takes to be able to play it is a lifelong pursuit.  It is the deepest form of artistic expression that there is.”


Wesley attended the Berklee College of Music for a year, earned a Bachelors degree in music from Eastern Illinois University, completed his Masters in 2005 and recently earned his doctorate, Wesley worked with saxophonist Willie Akins in St. Louis during 2004-05, became a well respected educator and has led his own groups for years in addition to appearing with some of the top musicians of the Midwest.


While Travis Welsey’s playing on 2012’s Natural Diversion showed his roots, Cycle By Three displays his individuality and creativity. This colorful and inventive set points the way towards the piano trio of the future.




The “Hang” at Tom Becker’s Home

Posted on 2 July, 2013  in Around The Horn, Musical Activities



When traveling, I frequently brag about the jazz scene in Central Illinois that I have been a part of for some time now.  Many folks from Illinois think that you have to go to Chicago, St. Louis or elsewhere to be part of a healthy environment, conducive to artistic growth.  However, if you live in Central Illinois, and are willing to commute 30-60 miles in just about any direction, you may just discover that this region is blessed with world class jazz musicians, enthusiasts and venues
who are willing to showcase the American art form.


Case in point – Champaign-Urbana, IL is currently home to one of the best jazz schools (graduate and undergraduate) in the country.  Its faculty, led by saxophonist Chip McNeil consists of some of the world’s most accomplished instrumentalists and recording artists. Among them are Chip Stephens, Tito Carillo, Jim Pugh, Joel Spencer, Glenn Wilson, Larry Gray and of course, Chip McNeil.  The students come from all over the country to study with these geniuses. This creates an amazing environment in the C-U community, that unfortunately not too many people outside of the jazz circles are aware of.  In Bloomington-Normal, IL there is Tom Marko (director of jazz at Illinois State University), Vibraphonist, and percussionist, Kevin Hart, Bill Schlipf, the singer, pianist and flautist Carl Bopp, Michael Carlson as well as yours truly.  Bloomington-Normal is also the hometown of pianist, John Campbell, and the young saxophonist who is currently making a name for himself in NYC, Adam Larson. In Peoria, IL there is trumpeter and jazz studies professor, Todd Kelly, there’s Tim Brickner, Cory Flanigan, Larry Harms, Randy Emmert and John Dann.  In Galesburg, IL there is the great trumpeter, Dave Hoffman who played with Ray Charles for 15 years, as well as bassist, Andy Crawford who both teach at Knox College.  In Charleston, IL there is Sam Fagaly, Paul Johnston, J.B. Faires, and Jay Ferguson.  Not to mention a great little jazz studies program of which I was a part of from 2000-2005 (directed by Fagaly).  In Macomb, IL there is the pianist, Michael Stryker, bassist Matt Hughes and guitarist George Turner, all of whom teach at Western Illinois University.  In Springfield, IL there is Ahmed Benbayla (who also happens to be an artistic administrator for the Chicago Jazz Orchestra), Frank Parker, Johnny Owens, Mark McNight, Sam Crain as well as Matt Schwartz, who from 2010-2011 bravely funded and ran Remy’s Jazz Club, a block away from the Capitol Building in Springfield, IL. During that year, Matt employed virtually all of the musicians mentioned above. In fact, if it wasn’t for Matt, and Ahmed Benbayla, who later took over the booking side of things at Remy’s, I would have likely would have lost my house. For that year alone, Remy’s has provided a lifetime of memories for many of us.


Am I forgetting anyone?  You bet your ass I am.  In Champaign, IL there is the great (and I am not using that word lightly here) Donnie Heitler, the blind pianist living in Champaign who has inspired countless young jazz musicians and knows virtually every tune there is, and can play them in any key with a hundred harmonic variations.  There’s also the trumpeter, Jeff Helgesen (also in Champaign), who played in Ray Charles’ band for several years and has been part of the Central Illinois scene for well over a decade now.  I must also mention the bassist, Ben Taylor, who I’ve played with off and on, over the last sixteen years. Ben has been a dear friend and mentor in many ways to me. There are a countless number of other students and freelance musicians working regularly throughout the area and interestingly, some making a living just by playing music.  And, the scene is growing.


I’ll admit that as of late, I have taken this little gem of a jazz scene in Central Illinois for granted.  You know how it is sometimes – the grass is always greener . . .  However, this past Sunday (June 30th, 2013), served as a wake-up call.


A couple of weeks ago I met Tom Becker after a gig in Bloomington, IL.  As we introduced ourselves and talked a bit, he invited me over to his house (Bloomington, IL) on Sunday, June 30th to meet the great jazz pianist, Kenny Drew Jr., who would be staying with Tom for several days.  Having listened to several of Drew’s albums, but never having the chance to hear him live, I quickly accepted the invitation.  Tom and I communicated briefly via email prior to his gathering, and he graciously insisted that I did not need to bring anything.  Just myself.  At this point, I was unsure as to whom would be there as well as what kind of environment it would be.  After talking my lovely wife into making a batch of her amazing chocolate-chip cookies (and trust me, these are no ordinary cookies), I drove approximately 2 miles from my door to Tom’s, and was greeted by Kenny Drew Jr. himself.  He just opened the door, let me in, and introduced himself.  Very cool.


Prior to leaving for Tom’s house, I told my wife that I had no intention of playing in Kenny’s presence.  I had resolved to visit with folks and if I was lucky, hear Kenny play in person.  From the outside of the house, music could be heard.  Live music.  And after meeting Kenny, I turned the corner to see Tom playing his beautiful Baldwin grand piano, along with a tenor saxophonist and drummer, Bob McEntyre.  Against my best wishes, Tom immediately insisted that I play as he had to prepare the food.  And there I was, playing the piano with great musicians without having been inside Tom’s home for two minutes!  After playing a couple of tunes, I got up to eat.  Great, smoked pork tenderloin prepared by Tom himself, and a variety of other dishes prepared by his lovely wife Sue, and other visitors. As we ate, the house filled with jazz musicians from all over the region and
country.  The great pianist, John Campbell, bassist, Richard Drexler, saxophonist Chip McNeil, saxophonist Glenn Wilson, trumpeter, Dave Hoffman, bassist, Josh Houchin, guitarist, LaMonte Pearsons, saxophonist, Brad Wheeler, singer and pianist Chuck Senrick, jazz studies students from Knox College in Galesburg, IL, saxophonist and bassist, Jeff Anderson, a fixture from the St. Louis jazz scene whom I crossed paths with during my time with Willie Akins in 2004-2005 and many others.


As the day unfolded, I found myself at one of the greatest jazz jam sessions I’ve ever been a part of, right in the middle Tom Becker’s living room.  Audience members crowded the hallways, the stair case and just about anywhere they could get a glimpse of the “happenings.”  Some of the day’s highlights included Kenny on piano, a brief appearance by John Campbell (if you’re not familiar with him, you should be), the trumpet of Dave Hoffman, and a rendition of Jimmy Van Heusen’s “Like Someone In Love” in two keys (E-flat and C) by Chip McNeil and Glen Wilson.  Vibraphonist, Kevin Hart showed up, set up, and remained part of the session throughout the afternoon, as did drummers Tom Marko and Bob McEntyre.  Josh Houchin and Richard Drexler shared the upright bass responsibilities, giving ample opportunity for a young jazz bass student (of Andy Crawford’s from Knox College) to “cut his musical teeth.”  A young pianist, Kyle Kunkler, from Knox College who I’ve had the pleasure of working with before, showed up and claimed his place at the piano as well. I’ll proudly mention that these young players more than held their own amongst the seasoned veterans.  Interestingly, there seemed to be more pianists in the house than any other instrumentalist.  A rarity at most sessions!


This was the type of session that is reminiscent of the early jazz days, or “hangs” at a musician’s house that you only read about nowadays.  And these weren’t just your average, run of the mill musicians.  These were world-class, jazz musicians, recording artists, composers and educators all under one roof in a Bloomington, Illinois household.  To hear Kenny Drew Jr. in person was nothing short of astounding.  I used to study his father’s music, also a legendary jazz pianist who recorded with Coltrane, Clifford Brown, Art Blakey and many others.  Kenny Drew Jr. is every bit as good as his father was.  In fact, I’d venture to say he’s better.  Bold statement?  Perhaps, but I’d like to think that those who were present on Sunday would agree.  Thanks Tom Becker, for opening your home to all of us.  For your hospitality and kindness.  This will be an occasion that I will share with musicians, students, family and friends for the rest of my life.


Kenny Drew Jr.

Kenny Drew Jr.


at Tom Becker's Home

Pianist, John Campbell


Chip McNeil w/Kenny Drew Jr.

Chip McNeil w/Kenny Drew Jr.


Fred Hersch Interview

Posted on 16 June, 2013  in Around The Horn

In December, 2012, I had the pleasure of interviewing pianist, Fred Hersch. Throughout his career, Hersch has worked with jazz greats such as Joe Henderson, Art Farmer, Stan Getz, Bill Frissell, Kurt Elling and Sam Jones to name a few. His influence is vast, having taught pianists such as Brad Mehldau and Ethan Iverson (the Bad Plus). He has been nominated for several grammy awards and his work not only includes jazz, but classical and broadway as well. There isn’t much I can say that hasn’t already been written about Fred. A simple google search will reveal countless articles, photographs, videos etc . . . Of course, you can visit his website as well. Just Click Here.

Please enjoy the interview transcript.  My sincerest thanks go out to Fred for taking the time to do the interview. It was a truly enlightening experience.

Fred Hersch Interview Transcript


Jay McShann’s “Hootie Blues”

Posted on 12 June, 2013  in Around The Horn, Writings

Jay McShann (1916-2006), is a pianist and bandleader whose ability to play the piano was overshadowed by Charlie Parker’s brief tenure in his Kansas City based big band.  In 1940, when Parker was barely twenty years old, McShann’s band broadcasted (and was subsequently recorded) live from an engagement in Wichita, KS, creating the first known recordings in existence of the great Charlie “Bird” Parker.  Parker’s role in these recordings have gained the bulk of the attention in the jazz world.  While this attention is of course justified, less of a fuss has been made about McShann’s incredible ability to play the piano.

McShann arrived in Kansas City around the time that Count Basie had been recruited by John Hammond.  With Basie’s departure to New York (1936), McShann began to soak up much of the work he left behind.  As a pianist, McShann was influenced by the blues, and boogie-woogie tradition in Kansas City at the time – a style originally forged in the Piney Woods of East Texas, which found its way to Kansas City, the hub for Southwest jazz and blues during the Great Depression and Alcohol Prohibition.  The blues were at the core of the Kansas City sound and can be heard as a major influence in early bands such as the Oklahoma City Blue Devils, Bennie Moten’s Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, Count Basie and the Kansas City Seven and of course Jay McShann’s band.  McShann’s solo piano style was no exception.  In fact, the great Art Tatum once stated that Jay McShann was the greatest blues pianist alive.

Attached, you will find a complete transcription of Jay McShann’s piano solo on his tune, “Hootie Blues,” which was recorded live at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1979.  I have also included an accompanying explanation of my transcription method, both in PDF format.




Great Time At Miller Park With Kevin Hart & The Vibe Tribe

Posted on 12 June, 2013  in Around The Horn, Musical Activities

Had a great time last night playing with Kevin Hart, Jeff Helgesen, Tom Marko and Tim Bricker at Miller Park’s summer concert series, “Jazz Under The Stars.” Kevin has selected some great music for this current group.  It’s such a treat getting to play with these great musicians.  Please be sure to check out Kevin’s upcoming events HERE.


More On “Cycle By Three”

Posted on 11 June, 2013  in Around The Horn, Musical Activities

By definition, this record falls somewhere between a song cycle and a concept album.  Each of the seven pieces that I contributed was composed or arranged specifically for this album.  Bassist, Toby Curtright also contributed two compositions, For Us This Is The End Of All Stories and But He Himself Was Broken.  Prelude and Postlude serve as bookends and behave much like a theme and its variation. These two pieces contain concepts that are explored by the trio throughout the album: the use of the bass as a melodic voice, creative use of the pedal point, through-composed material and counterpoint.  We attempted to evoke feeling and human emotion through our musical interpretation, and we feel there is a deep, contemplative tone to the set of compositions as a whole.


New Trio Album, “Cycle by Three”

Posted on 7 June, 2013  in Around The Horn, Musical Activities

I’m excited to finally announce the official release of our new trio album, Cycle by Three.  Since June of 2012, Tom Marko, Toby Curtright and I have been hard at work recording several original compositions.  The mastering is now complete, with a release date of July, 2013.  The album is a cycle of songs I composed specifically for this album and also includes 2 compositions by bassist, Toby Curtright as well as one “standard,” Spring Is Here.  Tracks can be sampled from this website in the playlist.  The album will be available for purchase through all of the major online retailers such as iTunes, CDBaby and Amazon.  We’re very excited about this release and invite you all to check it out, and hopefully purchase a copy!



Album Cover by Dave Scott Design


Last Weekend’s Music

Posted on 28 May, 2013  in Around The Horn, Musical Activities

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to play with Kevin Hart and the Vibe Tribe at the Manito Wine, Jazz and Balloon Festival in Manito, IL.  The group featured Tim Brickner on bass, Tom Marko on drums, Jeff Helgesen on trumpet, and of course Kevin on vibes.  While the weather was a bit cold and rainy, we managed to play some great music, and have a great time (thanks to the tent we were under!). I also had the opportunity to catch up with some old friends, all of whom were showcased at the event.  It was great seeing Dave Hoffman, Joe Metzka, Mike Nellas, Jason Brannon and Andy Crawford.  Everyone sounded great.  Thanks to the folks at the festival for having us.

On Sunday, I traveled to Knox College in Galesburg, IL to accompany and assist with Andy Crawford’s jazz bass studio for their final juries for the semester.  It was wonderful hearing these young students, most of whom were much improved from the last time I worked with them last November.

Click on the below links to check out last weekend’s featured artists at the Manito Wine and Jazz Festival.

Kevin Hart

Dave Hoffman

Jeff Helgesen

Joe Metzka