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?