Steven Feifke headshot

Composer Steven Feifke Talks Small Wins, Big Band, and Growing Up

Award-winning pianist, bandleader, and composer Steven Feifke is one of the most in-demand artists of his generation. A two-time semi-finalist in the Thelonious Monk Jazz Piano Competition, he's performed on stages around the world alongside such premiere artists as vocalist/producer Steve Tyrell, trumpeter Randy Brecker, saxophonist Chad Lefkowitz-Brown, and singer Veronica Swift—and at legendary venues, including the Blue Note, Dizzy's Club, Birdland, Times Square, and Rockefeller Center.

We caught up with the busy artist—whose work can be heard on such hit TV shows as Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, Impractical Jokers, and Animaniacs—to find out what inspired him to take up the piano, how he got to where he is today, and why he uses Sibelius to compose, arrange, and orchestrate all projects.

Steven Feifke playing at Birdland
Steven Feifke at Birdland

What is your background and how did you get into music?

I don't remember a time in my life when I didn't play the piano. My parents moved from South Africa to Boston three years before I was born. They brought this piano with them that used to belong to my grandfather for whom I'm named, and from the time I could crawl, I was always going over to the piano and "playing" it. My mom recognized I had this sort of connection with the instrument and started teaching me when I was four years old. That was my introduction to music. I started off with classical piano and had a couple of really great teachers growing up.

When I was around eight years old, I had a teacher named Susan Capestro, who immediately started coaching me in composition. I didn't realize that's what it was at the time, but during our very first lesson she asked, "Play me a waterfall." Like any little kid, I ran my thumb down the piano. She's like, "Okay, what happens when the water hits the ground?" and I crashed my hands to the keys!

Susan recognized before I did that I had an affinity for composition, in addition to improvisation. They are oftentimes really one in the same, just different editing processes—or no editing process, in the case of improvisation in the moment. She really nurtured that element of my musicality.

young Steven Feifke
Young Steven

I was very lucky to have been born and raised in Lexington, Massachusetts, which has an amazing jazz program in the public school system. There were several jazz septets and big bands at the school, and as the adventurous type, I tried my hand at writing for those ensembles—more successfully for the septet than the big band at that point, but still! It was my first time experimenting in writing for large ensembles, really notating precisely what I wanted other instruments to play.

I also attended the New England Conservatory Preparatory school in Boston and was inspired to book shows for myself around town to feature my compositions with trios, quartets, and septets. That experimental and adventurous writing process is something that has never really left me. I always make sure that I have time in my schedule to just sit at the piano and write and play. Playing and writing are very connected for me.

Steven Feifke and Stefon Harris performing at NYU
Performing at NYU with Stefon Harris

You moved to New York for college—what was that like?

I moved to NYC in 2009 to pursue an undergraduate degree at NYU. It's often said, but it's really true, that New York is the mecca for jazz, and I just found myself surrounded by and hanging out with people who I'd grown up listening to on recordings. Many of those people were also professors at NYU—people who I'm lucky to have had as teachers, including Don Friedman, the late great pianist who played with Joe Henderson, and countless others: Rich Perry, Brian Lynch, Dave Pietro, and the list goes on and on.

Basically, they would be like, "Hey Steven, I'm playing at so and so club tonight," or I would say, "Hey, are you playing somewhere this weekend?" Rich Perry plays in the Vanguard Band, so I would call him on Monday afternoon every week at pretty much the same time: "Hello Steven, would you like to come to the Vanguard tonight?" "Yes, thank you so much, Professor!" I was particularly lucky to study with one of the true maestros of this music, Gil Goldstein, with whom I have developed a strong bond. He shared a lot of craft and life skills related to the world of writing, arranging, and composing, and we still regularly keep in touch.

Steven Feifke playing at the Thelonius Monk competition

All throughout my undergrad years I had classes Monday through Thursday, and then I had Friday off—that was an intentional choice. As soon as my classes were done on Thursday night, I would go to Smalls Jazz Club and hang out at the session trying to learn whatever song somebody was playing that I might not have known, and just naturally meet people who were on the scene. Then between sophomore and junior year, I got accepted into the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition. I was 19 years old. I've never been one to really embrace competitions and had zero expectations when I sent off my audition tape. I thought it would just be great to get some feedback on my playing! I remember getting the phone call saying I had been selected as a semifinalist and feeling so surprised and happy. It was strange, but it felt like that moment marked my transition in some way from student to professional. All of a sudden, the relationships that I had with colleagues and peers shifted gears and leaning towards professional connections.

Why did you decide to continue your studies at Manhattan School of Music?

I took four years off in between my undergraduate and master's degrees—I wanted to see if I could make the transition from music as an avocation to music as a vocation before taking any "next steps." When I realized that it was financially viable to have a career in music, I said to myself, Okay, it's time to go back to school. I applied to MSM because I really wanted to study with Jim McNeely. I first played Jim's big band music when I was a junior in high school in the All State band led by Dave Pietro—we played a song of his called "Extra Credit," which is off of the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra record called Lickety Split. Studying with Jim was truly illuminating and life-changing.

I also felt there were some holes in my knowledge of orchestration that I really wanted to fill. Studying in the conservatory setting helped me make the connection that the music I loved playing had to have come from somewhere. And if I could understand, for example, how Wagner used half-diminished and diminished passing chords, then maybe I could better understand how Duke Ellington used double diminished chords. So, while I was at MSM, I also studied a lot of 16th- through 18th-century music. I love Mozart just as much as I love Thad Jones. I love Ravel and Debussy just as much as I love Duke Ellington. There's just a lot to learn from all of them.

Steven Feifke at Manhattan School of Music graduation
Steven and proud parents at MSM graduation

How did your big band album, KINETIC, come about?

After NYU, I really wanted to make a go of music, so I got a job teaching for a company called the Piano School of New York as a part-time position. I won't mention the hourly rate, but I will say that it was a lot of work just to make ends meet enough to keep me in New York and able to pursue artistic ventures. Around that time, someone commissioned me to write an arrangement of "I've Got The World On A String." I wrote the thing, showed it to them, and they said, "Wow I don't like this. No thanks, I don't think I'm going to use it, and I don't think I'm going to pay you." That was a tough day, but I learned a lot of valuable lessons in that moment! But I said to myself, I like this arrangement. What can I do with it? That ended up leading to the first recording of my big band. I put the video of the session up on YouTube. I liked doing it and there was a positive response, so I kept it going and began booking performances around the city wherever I could.

And so fast-forwarding almost 10 years, the KINETIC band is my band, the Steven Feifke Big Band, and I love all the members of the ensemble very, very much. In such a large ensemble, it's only natural that the personnel has changed and shifted over time. People have left and come back, and I would consider everyone who has taken part in the group over the years to be lifelong friends and collaborators of mine. People would move to different cities or states to take on a college teaching job. Sometimes I would want a different musical voice, which again, wouldn't be a comment at all about that person—it's just a comment on my own voice and what I was hearing for that project. So, over the course of almost 10 years, my band has been very lucky to play at some pretty great places, including Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola at Jazz at Lincoln Center amongst others. But the thing that truly made me ready to record KINETIC was the feeling that the band was… a band!

One of my favorite clubs to play has been The Django, which is downtown in Tribeca in the basement of the Roxy Hotel. It's this cool, tavern-type space—almost like a cave for music. Ken Fowser, a great tenor saxophonist in New York City, is responsible for booking at The Django, and he basically brought my band in for a monthly residency, which ran for almost two years before I decided to record this record. During that time, I was able to write for my band. I play piano on the record, but for this specific gig, there's no line of sight from the piano to the rest of the ensemble, so if I ever wanted to cue a section, I couldn't do it. To avoid the issue, I stopped playing piano and would hire some of my favorite pianists as side people—Liya Grigoryan, Alex Brown, Takeshi Ohbayashi, and more. It was an absolute gift to be able to hear some of my piano colleagues on my music, and it gave me another perspective on the music itself. More importantly, standing in front of the band let me watch the band play my music, which allowed me to see, Oh, the trombones have not taken a breath in four pages and are currently turning blue in the face! Okay, the trombones need to breathe. And I would re-orchestrate based on the observations.

Steven Feifke conducting at the Django
Conducting at the Django

It basically gave me a platform to experiment again, but this time the focus wasn't so much on composition but more on orchestration—what works well and what doesn't work—because hearing things from the front of the ensemble is different from hearing them from the piano chair. Having a monthly gig with a big band is pretty rare in New York City, so it also allowed me the opportunity to experiment over time with different people and different voices in the ensemble.

I understand that you recently started another big band project.

I started a big band with a collaborator of mine named Bijon Watson, who is a great lead trumpet player with the Clayton Hamilton Orchestra and MONK'estra, and was also in the movie La La Land. We started a big band together called the Generation Gap Jazz Orchestra, which is something that we've been wanting to do for ages. We presented at the JEN (Jazz Education Network) Conference and we're recording an album starting virtually in April, which is going to be both fun and challenging.

How is your approach different with the Generation Gap Jazz Orchestra?

The personnel of that band is entirely different, as is the general approach. It's not just my friends, it's also Bijon's friends. With the Generation Gap Jazz Orchestra, Bijon and I are trying to reinvigorate some sense of the Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers band vibe. Not to be so on the nose about it, but the Generation Gap thing is more to connect music with cross-generational human beings.

Age truly is but a number—when it comes to music anyway—and our goal for the band is to use music as a vehicle to connect with people of all ages. So, when I write for that band, I do feel like I'm putting in 100% of myself, similarly to with the KINETIC band. That said, the GGJO is a collaborative ensemble and vision, and we have very frank and open discussions to decide on the repertoire together. But at the end of it, Bijon might jokingly say, "Yeah man, write whatever you want to write. I'll just tell you if it's too high."

Anyway, I don't feel like I'm writing differently for that band, but I inherently do. Here's an example: John Fedchock is in the ensemble—a trombonist and big band leader in his own right who I grew up listening to in high school. I'm working on a feature for him right now, and I don't have a close personal relationship with him like I do with the members of my own ensemble. So, writing for him on the one hand is less personal, because we don't have that close friendship, even though we send emails back and forth, etc. But I also have like a certain closeness to him—a kind of common musical grammar—because I've been listening to him for so long, and I feel like I do, in some ways, know his musical voice. I think I know what he would like to play, I know what chords he would like to play, and I think I know what sound he would have in different registers of the instrument. This all feeds the process.

Steven Feifke playing at the Regattabar
Steven at the Regattabar

How did you come to use Sibelius?

I've always used Sibelius—I had Sibelius 2 in high school and then my parents got me Sibelius Student when I was a sophomore. I remember saying within the first month, "Can we upgrade, because I can only use eight staves at a time here." They were not too pleased about that!

I have a certain level of comfort in the program; I really know my way around it. It's the only program that I've ever used. I work as a music director for some people, and sometimes there are co-arrangers, co-orchestrators on a project, and they might use Finale. I would look on as they would perform a task, and they would look on as I performed a task, and I just have always liked the interface of Sibelius better. It's easier for me to use and feels more intuitive. I can make the scores look how I want them to look and make the parts look like I want them to look without really thinking about it.

The thought of switching to another program has literally never crossed my mind. When you're composing, arranging, and orchestrating, the fewer barriers between the creative process that's happening in your mind and how you input it, the better. As long as I can remember, I have never once had a single issue putting a note, chord symbol, any formatting thing into Sibelius—it's just been super easy, clean, and efficient.

handwritten score by Steven Feifke
Handwritten score

How does Sibelius fit into your workflow?

It depends on the deadline. Sometimes a piece just needs to go into Sibelius sooner rather than later. As far as my writing process is concerned, I always create a sketch. I always create a word plan. If I can have some semblance of an idea in my mind's eye visually of what is the order of events in an arrangement, I have an easier time tackling it—even if it's a composition of my own. That's a really important step, you know, and I guess it comes back to my early teacher Susan, like, "Okay, what happens when the water hits the ground?" It's not just a single element; there needs to be like some dynamic element that shapes the thing. With that in mind, I always write a word sketch and then I jump into either score paper or Sibelius and create a sketch on either—somewhere between two and five staves like a piano staff and either two or three extra lines above and below. That signifies certain ideas and elements and at that point, no orchestration will have happened. If I have an idea for orchestration, I will write in words like flutes or trumpets or anything else.

There have been times when I have created a specific sketch or an entire song only using four staves and then orchestrated it out for the full ensemble. There's actually a song like that on my record called "Midnight Beat." When I wrote it, I was thinking to myself, What if Neal Hefti wrote a funk chart for the Basie Band? In my sketch, I put the trombones in the treble clef of the grand staff, and I put the bass and trombones in the bass clef staff of the grand staff, and I put melody on the top line, and I put a counter melody like an answer below it. And that took me through to the development section, and I stopped there and put everything into Sibelius.

Then I exploded everything that I had sketched in Sibelius for the 18-piece ensemble and then took that through the development. By that time, I had certain ideas that had revealed themselves in the orchestration process, so the orchestration became part of the composition melody, harmony, rhythm, and that part of it. That's just one example, but every composition is either slightly or completely different. It also depends on what kind of mood I'm in. Sometimes I'll write an entire song and keep it in my head until I'm ready to write it out, and then I can just go into Sibelius and use the keypad to literally type in the notes.

Steven Feifke with the KINETIC Band
The KINETIC band

Finally, what have you been doing with your time during the COVID shutdown?

One thing that I've been able to do since COVID hit was to embrace the world of education in a new way. Before COVID, I was teaching private lessons in person and through The New School. I was also doing some guest artist appearances at colleges in masterclasses across the US, but obviously those things have pretty much stopped. I think I've had maybe four socially distant gigs since last March. There are a number of bands that I tour with, and as much as I miss not touring with them, the extra time gave me the opportunity to start my own online Zoom private lesson studio.

It also gave me the opportunity to put some of my thoughts on education into the format of books. A lot of my students were asking me very similar questions, and I basically created documents for them like, Okay, you can use this chord voicing here, you can use this exercise on guide tones to take you through the song, and you can use this exercise on guide tones to figure out some possible reharmonizations for this song. I put all that into a book called The Ultimate Guide to Jazz Piano Voicings, and Part 2 is on the way, the advanced guide.

Steven Feifke working with a student
Working with a student

Something else that I've been working on for a while now is a new book called From Lead Sheet to Large Ensemble. There are so many amazing arranging and orchestration books out there—many of which I have on my bookshelf that are, in many ways, like my companions. I still use these books. When I teach, what I have found is that the process is less one of teaching a concept than it is one of demystifying a concept.

A lot of the time, musicians look at a blank score—or even a full score of sheet music for an orchestra or a big band—and say, "How do I start? What is the first note that I write?" But those musicians would have no problem writing a lead sheet or putting a chord symbol like a C9 chord symbol with a G in the melody. So, the question becomes, not how do you teach this, but how do you demystify it? From Lead Sheet to Large Ensemble is basically taking someone from the process of writing that lead sheet to expanding it for a big band. There are infinite possibilities in how to score something, and this is a chance to present some of those examples.

Finally, I had the time to work on and put the finishing touches on my record, KINETIC. We recorded the KINETIC album in January 2019—just over two years ago. I was happy with the recordings and I was just taking my time on mixing, mastering, and post production. The music on the album was recorded while we were still doing The Django residency, and that sound and energy is captured on the recording. It's not just a studio ensemble with hired guns for a studio session—it really feels like a band. It feels like we bonded since that residency and, going forward, I imagine the band will continue to be a vehicle for my compositions just as much as it will be a family vibe—just hanging out and playing music together as friends and colleagues.

To learn more about Steven Feifke, visit stevenfeifkemusic.com.

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