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Justin Morell and John Daversa Talk Everything All Without Words

All Without Words Live is just around the corner, and we couldn’t be more excited! In preparation for the event, I sat down with brilliant composer Justin Morell and Grammy-Award-winning trumpeter John Daversa to discuss All Without Words. From the composition to the album recording to the upcoming live event, we cover it all. I had such a great time chatting with them, that I wanted to share some of that interview with all the avid Savage Content blog readers (thank you, truly).

For those who aren’t familiar with the event we’re putting on in Cincinnati, Ohio, let me give you some background. In partnership with The Boundless Arts Foundation, The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, and The Frost School of Music, we are bringing composer Justin Morell's jazz trumpet concerto to the stage.

All Without Words was inspired by the spontaneous vocalizations of Justin Morell’s nonverbal autistic son, Loren. The inspiration evolved into a work for solo trumpet, orchestra, rhythm section, and chorus made into an album. All Without Words Live will be a presentation by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in an expanded production of the original concert version created by Morell and his childhood friend and Grammy award winner John Daversa. The entire audience's experience will be filmed to be used in a feature-length video program.

The live multimedia and multidisciplinary presentation will be taking place on September 20th at Cincinnati Music Hall. Tickets are free, but should be reserved! You can do so here:

With all that lovely background out of the way, let’s get into the interview! I will be labeling my parts with KP, and our interviewees will be labeled by their last names.

KP: I'm so glad you guys are here to talk. The first question I have for you guys is, What do you hope people will get out of listening to All Without Words?

Morell: Well, I hope that people enjoy the music. I mean, I hope that they can listen to the music and just enjoy it for what it is. But ultimately, I hope that it maybe gets them to ask a few questions about what this piece is about and who is Loren. And through that, asking those questions, you know, explore the idea of the world of autism and all the people out there that don't have a way of expressing their emotions or expressing through language and the challenges that everybody faces. We all have our challenges. And so, I hope that it really gets people to look a little bit more deeply into the way that different people live their lives in the world.

Daversa: You know, art, and artistic expression...You can see it on a lot of different frequencies, a lot of different levels. And there's the part Justin just said, you know, we hope that people really enjoy the music and the emotional charge that is within it. And then, of course, we want it to reach not just people's minds, but people's hearts where it really assists and helps people to broaden their awareness and their perspective, like it has mine, to all the different lives that human beings are experiencing out there.

And I think that overall, maybe in a very big perspective, it opens up the prospect of a big word, which is compassion. Compassion for understanding everyone's gift and challenges in this human experience and to put a big hug around it. I think that's really my overall feeling from a project like this. I just want to be part of something that puts a hug around humanity.

KP: A hug around humanity. I love that. I think it's really important to have this kind of material out there. And the composition of All Without Words’ melodies are so atypical and effective. Justin, has this experience changed the way you compose and structure music in any permanent fashion?

Morell: That's such a great question. You know, I think that my approach to composing has changed, and I think a lot of it changed through the process of composing this piece. Although I think part of it was that I was able to compose this piece because I was ready compositionally in my development as a composer and a human being where I could do it. So, in a sense, it was two things. It was my being ready for it. And then it was just opening myself up to it and allowing that to happen. And having gone through that process and trying to find a way to be as judgment-free about the composing as I can and just allow myself to explore what I want to explore and tell the story that I want to tell. I feel like I've gotten much better at knowing how to do that, having gone through the process of realizing this piece.

KP: That's so cool. So, when it came to the composition process, you mentioned writing it and then handing it off to John. So, John, what did you bring to the composition process? Once you got the music, did you alter it at all? What was the process like for you?

Daversa: No, you know, the interesting thing is that the theme and then the 11 variations that Justin wrote are so thoughtful. Each one has a very succinct narrative and theme to it. Different parts of his experience as a parent to Loren and all of the love is in there, and all the pain and the challenges. There are all these little compartments and each different variation. However, when Justin sent it to me, I didn't know any of that. It just said variation one, variation two - and nor did I ask. I just started recording them.

And for me, it was a very intuitive process. I certainly wouldn't have known what those narratives were for each variation, but I could feel the essence of what they were about. So, it was just about bringing that feeling to each variation. And then also just knowing Justin's musical sensibilities from having grown up together and learning how to play music together for so many years. There's that influence too. So, we shared the same language.

There's a good amount of improvisation in a lot of the variations. So half of it is written, melodic content. And then the other half is, is improvizational, which you could argue that the improvizational components are compositional and just inherently so in that way, I suppose. There was- we kind of laugh about it- I didn't know what any of these pieces were about specifically until I saw the titles months later.

Morell: [Yeah] he had heard the theme before I started actually writing the piece. But then I don't think he really heard any more of the piece until I started sending him recordings to which he could put his parts on there. And I didn't explain any of the rest of it to him but he knew the concept. And we have this kind of unspoken understanding that, I will write exactly what I want to write, and then I send it to John. Whatever he wants to do with it at that point is fine with me. If he decides to rewrite the piece, that's fine. If he decides to change a few things, that's fine because I know that there's a mutual trust that happens there. And so, I don't really feel like I have to say anything.

KP: I really like that you guys have that relationship. You trust that whatever he wants to do with it, it's going to be good. It's going to work because he gets it. I think that's so cool that you guys have that kind of connection. And I really like what John was saying earlier about just feeling the emotion within the pieces because I think in each one you can feel a story building. That leads me to my next question. Justin, if you could add one more song right now, a piece that represents the most recent six months to a year of your life with Loren, what would that piece be like?

Morell: Wow. That's a really tough one. You know, this past year for us as a family has been very, very challenging because Loren is legally an adult now. So, we are now his legal guardians. And in addition to just being his parents, he really needs a lot of help. So, we have had a really challenging time trying to find resources to help him. And so, I think it would probably it would probably speak to, how do we as his parents serve him as an adult? How do we start to take care of him now that he's an adult and not a kid anymore? I mean, he's the same person he was four years ago when I recorded the theme. But psychologically, you know, when your child becomes an adult, then you start to think about those implications. It just changes your perspective on everything. So, I think it would be about how we can find a way to give him some independence in the world and have a place of his own. I can't tell you what I’d title it, but that would probably encapsulate that feeling.

KP: Yes, there are a lot of new factors to consider with adulthood.

KP: Shifting gears to the upcoming event...What has the preparation been like leading up to the All Without Words Live event? John, are you feeling nervous about the performance?

Daversa: [holding up his trumpet] I should be practicing right now.

KP: [laughs] Well I won’t keep you much longer so you can practice. Very important.

Daversa: Well, there's not necessarily a sense of nervousness, but, you know, there's just the trumpet part of it. The album is 73 minutes, or something like that. There's a lot of trumpet, and the trumpet uses these small little muscles in the corners of the mouth. And so, I feel like I'm doing this Rocky Balboa training right now to be able to just have the stamina to be able to express all the way through for that amount of time. So that's where I am right now. Ideally, it'd be great if I could practice four or five hours a day, but of course, I have so many other commitments during the day that just squeezing it in is hard. I'll sleep in a couple of years.

KP: What has it been like to bring All Without Words to the stage with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra? What has it been like working with them?

Daversa: Yeah, I mean, it's ramping up. We started talks about this [event] not that long ago. The large, huge, massive, important, gigantic production that this has become. And it's gotten bigger and bigger. Yes. It's pretty crazy. What we're doing in such a little amount of time. There are complex sets involved. There are dancers and light projection and all these visual tools that are going to make this narrative much more impactful and bring all the senses together so we can really feel this together. I forget what the name of the process is called, but time is getting shorter and shorter and shorter as we come close to the actual date. It's going to be incredible.

Our team has been unbelievably giving and skillful and creative. So working with CSO, just the fact that Jonathan Martin and everybody there has seen the importance of this project and wants to bring this to the community and to the to the greater community speaks about the culture within CSO. We also get to bring about 30 members of the Henry Mancini Institute from the Frost School of Music, where I teach at the University of Miami. They'll be able to play with the orchestra. There are 17 choir members from Dr. Amanda Cross’ studio that are going to join, and I think all four guitarists from John Hart’s studio [too]. I think one wind player will play with the principals from the CSO Orchestra for the bassoon chair, the horn chair, the flute chair, etc. So, it's going to be a wonderful pedagogical moment, too, just to be able to share that together.

KP: A great blend of all kinds of different people, all kinds of talents, all on one stage. It's going to be awesome.

Daversa: It's amazing. It's amazing when these projects are so much bigger than any one individual. Like I was saying before, [it’s] amazing what things happen. They just ballooned in truly magical ways.

KP: That leads me to the last question I've got for you guys. What are you most looking forward to about the All Without Words Live event?

Morell: You know, I have to say, it's hard for me to pin it down because I'm I am so looking forward to the event. But just the idea that it's happening is I mean, this is what composers dream about, right? I mean, you spend your whole life trying to get good at your craft and you always think, wow, it would be so fantastic to have a really great orchestra play this piece and to have people there to hear it and to have other creative people contribute to this then have this collaboration so that it takes on a life of its own. So, for me, the idea that I get to show up to this concert and basically sit in the audience while all this stuff is going on and watch so many individuals bring their own life experience to something that is entirely out of my hands. It's not mine anymore. It started here, but it belongs to the world now. And so just to be in that in that kind of energy's all you can ever want, really, as a musician and a composer.

Daversa: I know that feeling so well. That's exactly it. When you're a composer and then you release it to the world, that [feeling that] it's not yours anymore...It's been birthed and it's its own person. And you just watch it grow up and kind of go through the world. You watch it grow up before your eyes. The other incredible thing, too, is, as we mentioned before, - Justin and I - our families have been friends [since] before we were born. So, you know, Justin's family is going to be there. My mom is going to come in. And for them, it's going to be an incredible experience to just share that within the family part.

And then the fact that, for me, even in the genesis of collaborating with Justin in this project, one of my ulterior motives was I think that Justin's music should be heard everywhere. I mean, he's just a brilliant, brilliant composer that everyone should be hearing and learning from and experiencing. And the fact that this is going to be spotlighted in a big way through this production fills my heart more than I can say.

One little faction of that is when we finished the record and then I got to send it to, you know, Maria Schneider, who is the artistic director of the Henry Mancini Institute, and I said, hey, you know, we just recorded this record. What do you think? What do you think of this music? And of course, she just raved about it and it's like, “Yeah, see?”, That was just like a little a little seed of what's to come when people actually hear Justin's music.

What I'm really looking forward to is just sharing this brilliant piece with everybody that is able to come and be part of it. And also, this is going to be live-filmed and it's going to be a live record that goes out. And so, to that effect, sharing the story and sharing the awareness and sharing the awareness of Justin's music, all of those things.

KP: Yeah, I love that. It's going to get a chance to live on through the live recording, through the live album, and all of that. It'll just be this one special night that people will get to relive, get to go back to if they want to, which is going to be so cool.

Morell: You know there's, there's something that. You know, I think when we become parents and we have kids, you know, we imagine what our kids are going to do in the world. And I think we often say, you know, I really hope that I have a child who's going to go out in the world and do some wonderful stuff and make lots of friends and change the world and invent something amazing or, you know, serve people, you know, whatever it is that you envision. And so, when you when you have a child with special needs and communication issues and all of these things, you know. It becomes really difficult to follow that path right, for your child... there just aren't those kinds of opportunities. So the really cool thing, [what] strikes me sometimes [is] how there are so many people that know who Loren is through this project. His life is so kind of insular in so many ways. The idea that there is a connection that people have to him, even if he doesn't necessarily know that that connection is there yet, I hope that he feels it on some level. It brings it all back together to family, you know? Lifelong friendships and trying to do something positive in the world. All of that stuff is all wrapped up in this. So, it's just such a great opportunity.

Justin Morell and John Daversa are excited for the event. What about you? I personally can’t wait to see all the hard work come to fruition by the amazing people working on this event. All Without Words Live is happening on September 20th at 7:30 PM at Cincinnati Music Hall.

If you’re interested in coming to this event, tickets are still available to reserve for free here:

And if you’re not in the Cincinnati area to come to this event, be sure to keep up with us on socials for opportunities to experience the event. Stay tuned 😊

Thanks for reading!

Compiled and transcribed by Kristen Petronio


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