The Q&A: Composers Russell Welch and Rex Gregory

Two composers new to Marigny Opera Ballet make their debuts in Jazz Ballets, opening Thursday (January 25) for a three-performance run. Russell Welch and Rex Gregory join Nutria (Byron Asher, Trey Boudreaux and Shawn Myers) whose work on last season’s Wary Heat will be reprised in Jazz Ballets.


“Silk and Smoke” (Choreography: Gretchen Erickson)

Guitarist and composer Russell Welch leads The Russell Welch Hot Quartet, a world-class gypsy swing outfit that’s performed for festivals, concerts, clubs and vintage dance events in more than 12 countries. The group combines Russell Welch’s original compositions with hot jazz in the tradition of legendary European jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt. Russell’s first album was nominated “Best Traditional Jazz Album”, and he was nominated “Best New Orleans Guitarist” both by Offbeat Magazine.

Q: You’re a seasoned composer, but have you composed music for a ballet before?

A:    I have not composed music for ballet before, although I have been exploring classical composition for some time. I’m interested in the way humans react to music. The best part for me in writing this bit was knowing that dancers would interpret it into movement.

Q: If there is a narrative, at what point in the creative process did it emerge?

A:  Yes, this is a love poem. It had no preexisting ideas – this was completely written with my lover in mind.

Q: Was the experience with Silk and Smoke collaborative? How much interaction did you have with the Gretchen?

A:  I love Gretchen’s work and consider her a fantastic talent.  For this project, she gave me a “flow chart” for three movements, and I used that to compose. I had a lot of freedom while creating.

Q: Are there plans to develop “Silk and Smoke” into a longer work?

A:  I would love to see this grow further, and I’m excited to have the opportunity to collaborate on more work like this.  There are no definite plans, but I imagine working with some of the stronger themes when I record Mississippi Gipsy II — my next album of original music.

Q:  What does the next generation of jazz music look like?

A:  Hungry.

Q:  What’s on your personal playlist?

This month? The Shaggs, Daniel Johnston, SGT. Pepper Eternally Yours and Ariel Pink



“Tells” (Choreography: Kellis McSparrin-Oldenburg)

 Saxophonist and multi-instrumentalist Rex Gregory has performed and/or recorded with a diverse array of luminaries that includes Aretha Franklin, Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga, Rickie Lee Jones, Jason Marsalis, Anders Osborne, Wendell Brunious, James Singleton, Stanton Moore, Helen Gillet, Steve Masakowski, Sarah Quintana, and many others. Gregory is also well known for his composition and arranging abilities which are featured on his independently released studio recordings An End to Oblivion and Rocket Summer.

 Q: Have you ever composed music for a ballet before?

A: Once, I composed music for a solo dance piece entitled “Never a Duet”. It was a solo saxophone piece I’d recorded for a modern dancer whom I’d met when I attended CODARTS in Rotterdam. I was on the edge of my seat seeing the piece being performed, and it’s something I’ve been itching to do again since.

Q: What do you want the audience to experience when they’re listening to “Tells”?

A: The piece is about a game of poker, so I’d like the listener to experience the things that happen in card games. This is a casual setting, an almost flippant atmosphere. Underneath, however, tension and cutthroat instincts can underlie something ultimately very trivial. A game can make people show their true, instinctual selves the way conversation sometimes cannot.

Q: What’s the story behind the title?

A: It’s a Poker term, the “tell.” Definitely, the title of the piece reflects the way a card game can “tell” on the true nature of the people who choose to play. Everyone has a unique style of play, and true natures tend to come out when the stakes get raised. People you think of as sweet will stab you in the back; people you think of as clever become sore losers; people you thought of as dense are actually Jedi Masters . . . .

 Q: At what point in the creative process did the narrative emerge?

A: Quite early! Kellis McSparrin-Oldenburg was wonderful in that she had already painted a pretty complete picture of the narrative of the piece before a note or a step was written down. We had a sit down in August, I think it was, and she presented the idea of a card game, and we quickly got a sense of the rather steamy, somewhat violent narrative that would emerge.

Q: What does the next generation of jazz look like?

A: I think the next generation of music, period, looks a lot poorer, honestly. I’m not sure of the ability to grow the taller trees given the condition of the soil. To speak directly, I think the internet and music streaming services are having profoundly negative effects on the music industry. Niche marketing and internet induced “tunnel vision”, the over saturation of content creation, and heightened consumer expectations that all music should be free spell trouble for music and art in general. Music is forced to act like an advertisement, honestly. Anyone who doesn’t see the contradiction between art and advertising and is okay with this change doesn’t understand art or its purpose. If art is to become entertainment only, it will be such a terrible loss . . . . Art and music creation will ultimately become more of a hobby, I think. Obviously, I tend to be pessimistic in these regards, but I’m hoping enough awareness will force conditions to change.

Q: What’s on your personal playlist?

A: Well first, two selfish plugs: Toonces recently put out a record called Milk for My Tears and I still listen to it because I’m quite proud of the work we did on it. Tranche is another band that’s going to put out an EP soon that I’ll be on. I’ve always thought they were so great and I was so happy to be a part of the EP.

Local acts I’m listening to and loving: Shrugs, a band from Lafayette, their self-titled LP is a truly amazing feat for a band so young. Nebula Rosa has an album coming out that will be great. I hope Julie Odell will record soon because her music is very special. Adrienne Edson / Garden Marbles put out a great record recently. I try to listen to my friends, what can I say?


Francis Scully

Founder and Director, New Resonance Orchestra
Music Director, Marigny Opera Ballet

Over Coffee

by Sharon O’Brien

At CC’s on Esplanade Avenue, Francis Scully is reflecting on a range of topics – from his singular approach to classical music to the special challenges of being music director for the Marigny Opera Ballet’s “Giselle Deslondes.”
What’s particularly refreshing about Scully is the breadth of his vision and his willingness to leave the confines and silos of traditional classical music to engage and create with dance companies, theaters, and visual artists.  As he sees it, “with classical music, we need to stimulate our own creativity. It’s really exhilarating to connect with artists in other disciplines. It moves us forward to the next thing. It helps us think in different ways.”
Ultimately, “our goal is to reach new listeners. We’re telling them ‘this music is about you, it touches on your concerns, and it’s made by people like you.’ We’re not messing with the music of great composers, but we are saying that the listener is the hero.”
In many ways the antithesis of twentieth century conductors like Toscanini, Scully thinks of conducting differently. “It’s a larger umbrella than just waving the hands. It encompasses all sorts of administrative things, pre-concert planning, creative strategy and curatorial functions.  You know, I think a lot about how to respond to the challenges of being a conductor in 2016. Maybe this isn’t just about music, but also this idea of collaboration. . . . “
Scully didn’t have a classical music background growing up. He listened to rock, letting himself free range through different musical eras and genres, coming to classical music in his teens.  Like others of his generation, he benefitted from technology that disrupted the old ways of listening to music.  Prior to digitalization, music was strictly classified and categorized by type, genre and delivery mechanism (e.g., live, radio, record stores, tape).  “These categories – socially and from an access standpoint — are disintegrating.  If you have the interest in say Balinese music, you can find it. “
The Norfolk, VA native studied violin in public school and went on to an undergraduate degree in violin performance from Catholic University and a master’s in conducting from the Peabody Conservatory of Johns Hopkins University. After graduation he landed an internship with the Berlin Philharmonic and traveled through Europe listening and learning. “I first went to Berlin in 2000.  I wasn’t there in the 1990s, but there was this sense of a huge upheaval all at once.  Artists were there, experimenting, throwing off all of this creative energy.”
A 2007 trip to visit his parents in New Orleans became another inflection point.  “Getting off the plane from frigid Berlin, I went straight to a Mardi Gras parade in 70-degree weather.”  What he felt in New Orleans was a blast of the creative energy he’d experienced in Berlin.  Then, there was the chance to be part of rebuilding the city after the storm. “It felt like a place that was uniquely open to experiment at that moment.”
No surprise then that Scully’s first project was a Post-Katrina piece, Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring.”  It seemed to answer questions he always asks himself about his work, “How do you celebrate what’s happening here?  How do you express the spirit of this community? The Idea is always to connect classical music with whatever’s going on. . . .  We have to come up with a good reason for why in 2016 are we doing this.”
More than just a conventional concert, this 2008 “Rebuilding Appalachian Spring” was a multimedia show with actors, dancers, video projections and the debut performance of his New Resonance Orchestra. The composition of New Resonance, which draws from the ranks of LPO, NOCCA faculty and freelance professional musicians, varies with each production.  And so do Scully’s collaborators.  For “Haydn Seek,” Scully’s June 2016 production at Marigny Opera House, he partnered with Goat in the Road Productions to literally bring in the clowns for chase scenes and broad physical comedy in eight Haydn symphonies.
Was the 18th century Austrian composer rolling in his grave? Scully doesn’t think so. In an interview with Dean Shapiro in The New Orleans Advocate, he explained that somewhere in the 1760s and 1770s, Haydn started the practice of using symphonic music for theatrical performances, possibly even for comedy interludes in between the acts. Scully also finds evidence that seems to indicate that Haydn was thinking about theatrical gestures and timing. “So it seemed like we could put together a fun program of some of these really unusual works that are specifically theatrical and add our own little touches to it.”
Scully’s association with Marigny Opera House dates to 2009 when it was still Holy Trinity Church, a deconsecrated neighborhood place of worship soon to be acquired by Dave Hurlbert and Scott King. Since then, Scully has been a frequent collaborator with Hurlbert, Tucker Fuller, and others on a dazzling variety of productions.
For “Giselle Deslondes,” Scully thinks of himself as sort of the second level in the creative process, following what composer Tucker Fuller and choreographer Maya Taylor have already devised.  That said, the challenges are ample. “We’ve never heard this piece before. No one hears it until the very first night of rehearsal with the orchestra.
“The ballet company has been working with computer generated music for rehearsals and does not experience the full orchestra until a week before opening. So there are different tempos, different sounds from what the dancers are accustomed to.  So, how can I put this together — how I can take what everyone else has already contributed and make it work. That’s my challenge now.”


You can hear the New Resonance Chamber Orchestra at the world premiere of “Giselle Deslondes” featuring choreography by Maya Taylor and score by Tucker Fuller  November 17-20 at the Marigny Opera House

Maya Taylor


by Sharon O’Brien

Early afternoon at Café Fatoush in The Healing Center on St. Claude. This is a Turkish coffee shop/restaurant with an air of the mildly exotic about it. It is a good place to meet because it’s usually quiet. Even on weekends when it’s packed with chess players hovering over chess boards, it’s quiet.
Another woman mistakes me for the person she’s meeting with that day.

When Maya Taylor enters, you know without having to ask that it’s Maya, rehearsal director and resident choreographer extraordinaire for the Marigny Opera Ballet.

After four months off, Taylor is charged and ready to get started. “It’s really beautiful season – there’s something for everyone to come and see. And something for all the dancers, too.“ She’s spent months pouring over videos of dance hall footage from the twenties and thirties. Envisioning how composer Tucker Fuller will transmute Tin Pan Alley ditties and other music of the period into the score for Giselle Desponds, a full length contemporary ballet that world premieres at Marigny Opera House on November 17.

Her process involves listening to the music over and over, setting aside time to parse the score and get the structure down. Taylor’s been working with Executive Director David Hurlbert’s scenario and Fuller for some time now, but she’s clearly eager to begin working with her dancers.
The Marigny Opera Ballet Company of eight dancers includes several members from last season as well as newcomers. “They’re super talented, hardworking, and open to anything I throw at them during our rehearsals.”

Dancers spend an hour five days a week in class, followed by three hours of rehearsal.  Learning each other as well as the dance. In addition to being classically trained in ballet, the dancers are fluent in modern, jazz, and improvisation. They will be learning and playing with the Charleston and Black Bottom for the dance hall scene.

While Balanchine famously compared dancers to instruments that the choreographer plays, Taylor’s work tends to be more collaborative. She believes that the element of play is essential to training and rehearsing.  Sometimes, even an incorrect dance move gets kept in because it works.  With a story as dark as Giselle’s, there is room for laugher and light, especially in Act I where dancers are responding to music’s that’s very fast, powerful and dramatic.

While her own contemporary dance ensemble Maya Taylor Dance continues on a project basis, Taylor’s main focus is the Marigny Opera Ballet which she joined in 2014, creating such works as Selcouth Liaisons, Summer from The Four Seasons, and a group version of Under a Glass Bell.

In 2014, Marigny Opera Ballet commissioned Taylor to choreograph Orfeo, her first full-length contemporary ballet.  Based on the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, reviewer Chris Waddington applauded “choreographer Maya Taylor’s ardent, articulate gloss on the oft-treated legend of doomed lovers.” Audiences agreed, responding with sold out houses.

When the decision was made to close the current season with a reprise of Orfeo, Taylor was delighted.  With four dancers new to the ballet, she looks forward to tweaking the elements that will help make the ballet even stronger.

Writing in the Huffington Post, Hallie Sekof describes the use of location by contemporary choreographers in such a way that the space becomes as much a part of the performance as the bodies of the dancers. Indeed, by rejecting the confines of the concert stage choreographers like Taylor are disrupting conventional notions of performance and responding to the architecture and history of (in this case) an historic structure.

“The beautiful space at the Marigny is a major part of why I love working there,” Taylor acknowledges.  “It is so beautiful, vast, and provides a lot of time to contemplate where I want to go with movement and with the dancers. I think everyone that steps into the space falls in love with it.”

“Collaborating with Dave and Tucker has also been a dream as they have a very clear vision and I am so thrilled to create the choreography to add to this original version of Giselle.”

Tucker Fuller


Midmorning in Café Luna. Not much happening. Whirrs and beeps of coffee machines, low murmur of convo, nothing out of character for a cozy, uptown coffee shop except for maybe one thing. There’s a bitcoin ATM next to the counter, an anachronism all the more consequential because it’s likely one of a few such ATMs in town, a harbinger of the future in a city which thrives on its past and dotes on financial icons like The Whitney.

Still, the laid back ambience with its minor dissonance seems spot on to talk music and the life of a composer in the Crescent City with Tucker Fuller, composer of Marigny Opera Ballet’s November world premiere, Giselle Deslondes.


This is not your mother’s Giselle or even your sister’s. This is music set to a stripped down story line that plops the original folk tale smack in the middle of Faubourg Marigny in 1930’s New Orleans.
Well, what about Adophe Adam, composer of what has been called the “Hamlet of Ballets”? Well, what about him?  “I’ve listened to the score,” Fuller says. “It’s very lush, pretty and of its time, but I didn’t take much or anything from it.”

The 1841 work is “a problem ballet, like a problem play, e.g. A Winter’s Tale.” One thing off-putting about the original was its ham-handed characterizations. “This poor fragile lady who falls in love and is taken advantage of by this terrible man.”

Fuller’s Giselle is a charming, charismatic woman, with a Scheherazade-like way of drawing people to her.  Not so much the victim. Act 2 depicts what happens to Giselle as Giselle’s choice.  So, Giselle Deslondes is less a caricature than her 19th century counterpart and more complex and relatable to contemporary audiences.


“I tried to keep in mind music from the first third of the last century – not just jazz but Tin Pan Alley. There were a number of composers in that period (including Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Kurt Weil) who were interested in popular music.”

Working with a scenario created by Marigny Opera Ballet Executive Director David Hurlbert, Fuller drew major inspiration from New Orleans’ much loved New Leviathan Oriental Foxtrot Orchestra. Although New Leviathan doesn’t create original compositions, it draws music from archives throughout the U.S., especially the Tulane University Jazz Archive and Tin Pan Alley.  Its uniqueness comes from instrumentation. So Fuller’s Giselle Deslondes is scored for pre-depression era jazz orchestra, one that includes strings.

Act I, he says, consists of consists of the kind of music you’d hear in a dance hall – polka, foxtrot, waltz and Charleston.  “Act II goes away from the dance hall but takes everything from the beginning and develops it. “ Voodoo is an important element here, with the well-known Wilis (a group of supernatural women who dance men to death) from the original Giselle replaced with a witch and spirit slaves.


“Writing for ballet is hard. Very difficult. I take the scenario and parcel it into numbers and scenes. From there, I start writing and imagining what the dance might be like and how much time it might take.

“I then sit down with Dave Hurlbert and choreographer Maya Taylor and talk through how I visualize everything happening. I come up with a blueprint. Then, when Maya starts working with the choreography, she might say ‘this section is a little long’ or ‘can you add a couple of bars here.”
“I’m not a dancer. So I want to see if what I’m imagining in my head works aligns with their visions of the ballet.”

“I worked with Maya on last year’s Orfeo.”

“Maya gets things done. She’s disciplined and focused. No waiting around for the muse to strike, if you know what I mean. Maya’s also very thoughtful. We click very well when we’re talking about character and motivation.”

“It’s fun, too, because Maya and Dave will sometimes see something or will have an idea about how to do something. So, it’s a real collaboration.”


Every ballet begins with a vision and takes its shape from a scenario created by Hurlbert that’s then translated into music and choreography.

“Dave’s genius was to take the original story which involved 16 dancers and strip it down to eight. While many contemporary versions of Giselle disrupt the setting, period and costumes, few create new scores as we have.”

What elevates Marigny Opera Ballet is its ability to commission original scores and choreography that are presented with a live orchestra. Being able to work with a conductor and musicians is almost a luxury for contemporary dancers.  If a dancer is having difficulty with the pace of the music, the conductor is able to adjust tempo to movement.

Key to the team’s third season of award-winning productions is musical director Francis Scully who founded New Resonance Orchestra in 2008. Scully’s musicians are mostly drawn from the ranks of the LPO and the NOCCA faculty.

Because New Resonance focuses on innovative approaches to presentation, Scully is a great fit for the Marigny Opera Ballet and for Tucker Fuller.  For Fuller’s Orfeo, which will be reprised this season, Scully’s 13-member string/woodwind chamber orchestra was a major contributor to the production’s critical success.

“Francis is fantastic, extraordinary and thoughtful.  He goes above and beyond — It’s wonderful to work with a conductor who spends so much time going through the score and doing his own analysis of the entire piece.”


“It seems everything I’ve been asked to do by Marigny Opera House has pushed me in different directions. Everything I’ve been asked to do for them is very different — from the religious music to Orfeo, from sort of a Baroque pastiche style to jazz. They’ve all been challenging, but when you train as a composer, you just do it.”

For a composer, New Orleans is a kind of nirvana. “A main difference between New Orleans and New York is that I can afford to live here, although that’s getting harder. There’s like a thousand composers in NYC trying to do whatever they do.  I like being away from that scene, being able to write things, find an audience and connect with it.”

“Here it’s really nice. I’ve been able to do more theatrical stuff. It’s a different kind of composing.  It’s not so much about what you want to do but being able to work with performers and directors and choreographers.”

“There’s so much going on here. It’s a very lively arts scene. A ton of things going on.  What I like about New Orleans is that it doesn’t have many of the trappings you find in other cities, cities with a specific aesthetic.”

“I’ve been in New Orleans since August 2010. I’ve lived in lots of different places but there’s no other place in the U.S. like this one.”