TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. — “American Tapestry,” the latest album from Air Mobility Command's U.S. Air Force Band of the Golden West stationed here, aims to weave a multitude of experiences of Airmen as well as others connected to the armed forces.
The mostly instrumental concert band record brings together numerous threads by casting a light on women, different aircraft, World War II veterans, the American flag, the first African American in outer space and more.
The album is about people, said Maj. Joseph Hansen, U.S. Air Force Band of the Golden West commander.
“(It’s about how) diversity in people's backgrounds and experiences are what help the Air Force innovate and be the strongest on the planet,” Hansen said.
In the spirit of bringing together a myriad of experiences, the band sought new work from a variety of uniformed and civilian composers, including Brett Abigaña and Greg Johnson, who both have ties to Northern California.
Abigaña, a faculty member at Boston University Academy in Massachusetts and a native of Woodland, California, penned two pieces for the album. One, "Through the Kármán Line," highlights Col. Guion Bluford, a NASA astronaut from the late 1970s until the early 1990s. Prior to that, Bluford rose to the rank of Air Force colonel after stints as a fighter pilot and flight instructor while earning a doctorate in aerospace engineering.
In 1983, Bluford became the first African American in space. "Kármán Line” seeks to evoke the feeling of the astronaut’s experience as he crossed the titular boundary between earth's atmosphere and outer space.
“I was trying to think about what that would feel like to cross through that uncrossable-at-one-point line,” Abigaña said. “Leaving the tension, the frustration, the monotony of everyday life behind and having that experience? Man, that must have been amazing. I wanted to show that.”
Though the band does not perform it as such on the record, Abigaña wrote “Kármán Line” in such a way that performers can play the notes in reverse order, something he did to symbolically capture Bluford’s ascent toward the stars as well as a safe return back to earth.
"I was just trying to do something different,” Abigaña said. “Just for fun, I wrote it in such a way that you can cross the line twice."
Another civilian composer helping the band weave its “Tapestry” is Johnson, Marin School of the Arts director of jazz studies in Novato, California. Johnson wrote “Flying Higher,” a three-movement, seven-and-a-half-minute suite.
Typically a jazz composer, Johnson said it was his first time writing for a larger ensemble such as a concert band. His goal was to embody the feeling of progress and development from the industrial revolution to the present, with each subsequent movement building in complexity to symbolize the chronological advancements of technology.
Johnson plays multiple instruments, but highlighted his favorite, the saxophone, in “Flying Higher.” His collaboration with the U.S. Air Force Band of the Golden West came after meeting one of the band’s members, Master Sgt. Ricky Sweum, at a big band show in Martinez, California. Johnson wrote it with Sweum in mind, giving the saxophone solos throughout the suite.
“I was blown away by how good he was,” Johnson said. “I’m also a sax player, so I could respect his level of musicianship. … He was the first person I thought of to feature.”
While neither Abigaña nor Johnson served in the military, they have a deep respect and admiration for those who do. Both have relatives and members of their immediate families who have served in the armed forces.
“I always like working with military people,” Johnson said. “It’s something that’s unusual for someone in my industry unless you’re working with a military jazz band. It’s a job very few composers get. In a way, it connects me to my family a little bit more. … I realize I’m not doing anything on the scale that they are, but it feels good to contribute a little bit.”
Abigaña, who has also written pieces for the Army and Navy, expressed praise for military musicians.
"Whenever any military ensemble calls, I will literally drop everything and write them something," he said. "For me, it’s the right thing to do. It’s my way of saying thank you."
Hansen said one of his favorite pieces for the 12-track album is the Abigaña-penned "Locrian Riffs," which was inspired by a 2019 visit to Travis AFB by four women who worked at a Richmond, California, shipyard during World War II. These women aided in the war effort on the homefront while men were dispatched to war.
Abigaña said he wrote the piece to mimic the frenzied energy of being inside a working factory.
"The idea was to emulate a factory sound, the never-ending energy, this chugging," Abigaña said. "The same melodies are being repeated over and over again. The title is not only how notes are organized, but they’re riffs. It's straight out of the bebop (jazz) era, which was starting to become popular as the war was ending. I wanted to not only pay homage to the actual working situation these women were in, but also the music in my head that they might have been listening to."
Hansen said that amplifying and recognizing the contributions of veterans, and women in particular, to the nation’s history on the album was important to him.
“I hope that our veterans here in the west and across the country can read the stories and appreciate the storytelling on their behalf,” Hansen said. “I hope also that all readers and listeners will see the great contributions of women in our country over the decades all the way up to today with our last commanding general, Gen. Maryanne Miller, and our present Air Mobility (Command) commander, Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost. I am grateful people will hear the talents of so many of the Airmen from the Band of the Golden West.”
Recording for the album, which features the band’s wind ensemble, as well as members of other Air Force bands, took place in February at the Charlene Powers Lange Performing Arts Center Theatre in Lodi, California.
To hear their talents on “American Tapestry,” visit the band’s Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/bandofthegoldenwest/ to receive a copy of the album.