James Todd: No Cello Ever Sounded Like This Before!
While working diligently one evening, tying up a few odds and ends at THREAD MB, I received an unexpected text from my second-born daughter. Enclosed within was a sweet note as well as a Youtube video she wanted to share with me -- Quiet Beauty. She had been listening to the album as a means of calming her strained nerves - the result of a rigorous college exam schedule - and she couldn’t help but share her discovery, knowing full-well how much I loved classical music too.
My heart stopped the minute I heard the namesake song to the album. “Quiet Beauty” was indescribably beautiful. It resonates with emotion and speaks to the core of you -- each note’s spirit touching yours. When I, finally, emerged from this surreal state, I was eager to learn more about the gifted composer and performer behind this body of work as not too many artists can guarantee you an “outer body experience” like this one can.
Needless-to-say, it wasn’t surprising to me that James Todd has had a long history of playing with leading musical names, such as Led Zeppelin, Yanni, Stevie Wonder or Ray Charles. Or that he sits, currently, as the principal cellist with the Arapahoe Philharmonic in Denver. Such talent is ‘otherworldly’ and those that have it, transcend planes and take everyone listening with them.
James Todd is one of those rare artists, whose magnificence precedes him. Now, it’s time to get to know him.
What is your personal mantra?
“Music expresses that which cannot be put into words, yet cannot remain silent.” Music is a language unto itself. While it appeals to the intellect, it has the ability to bypass conscious thought and speak directly to the heart and soul.
Share the highlights of your personal and professional background story through to today, including how many instruments you currently play.
I did study the piano at a very early age, and I do, usually, compose at the piano. But my focus has always been the cello. I am currently the principal cellist with a local symphony that I have played with and supported for many years – the Arapahoe Philharmonic in Denver, CO. I’ve had the pleasure to perform as guest solo artist with many area orchestras, and have joined in concert with a number of touring artists and shows.
Throughout my musical career, a large part of my energy and passion has been devoted to teaching. I really believe in sharing and passing on the spirit and joy in making and appreciating music. I maintain an active teaching schedule, and I’ve served on the faculties of local colleges, and as a guest clinician/instructor at education conferences held throughout the U.S.
I’ve also done a fair amount of studio recording, and performed on numerous artists’ albums and recording projects that include many genres and styles of music. It is probably what guided me to start writing and producing my own CD. In the past couple of years, I’ve had the privilege to collaborate with several wonderful artists who asked me to join their projects after hearing my music. I am currently immersed in an exciting project with a super talented composer/pianist in NYC, Cindi Hsu.
What is it about the cello that drew you to it?
Besides the fact that the cello is simply one of the most amazing instruments in the world? Haha!
Actually, I grew up in a musical family. My dad’s father was a very fine violinist and one of my grandmothers was an opera singer. My older siblings all played instruments, including my brother who also plays the cello. So, it was more or less a given for me that I would also start on the cello when I was about 8.
What has held me close to this magnificent instrument is the mellow, soothing, rich tonal quality the cello has. I believe it is the musical instrument that most closely emulates the range and expressive qualities of the human voice. It can play in the lower bass registers as well as in the upper soprano ranges. And it is capable of such deep lyrical, emotional expression and warmth….
Finish this sentence - "Without music life ___________________."
Without music life is Unthinkable.
Music is such a powerful force. It speaks to hearts and minds, and is universally felt and understood. It represents nations and cultures, and yet can provide deep personal comfort, and gently rock a baby to sleep. It is part of the fabric of our being.
Discuss your album "Quiet Beauty" including how long it took to put together and what you hope listeners gain from it.
I conceived and wrote the music for my “Quiet Beauty” album over a period of about 5 years. I didn’t have a CD project in mind when I wrote the first song. I just had what I thought a nice melody in my head that I wanted to write down and then develop. After the first song came the next,..and the next. Aside from being a performing musician, I guess I had opened a new creative avenue to express myself through music. As I continued writing, each song was inspired by feelings deep within me. I was unaware some emotions were even there until revealed in the process of writing the song. Expressions of love, hope, sorrow, wonder, doubt, joy ….. I call them “heartsongs” as they truly came from my heart and soul.
Many people who have heard my music have responded saying that it has moved them in very personal and profound ways. I had the realization that while music has always been a catharsis for me, that my music was also really helping others in a meaningful, emotional way. This is so personally rewarding to me; to bring comfort, solace and provide a musical pathway to self-expression and self-awareness, and reflect the inner beauty we all share.
Share the names of some famous musicians and vocalists you have worked with.
I have had the sincere pleasure and privilege of working with outstanding artists over the years.
I have had the opportunity to work with musicians across many genres of music, including Rock, Jazz, Classical, Broadway, Motown , Country, New Age, R&B, etc. Some of the notable names and groups include Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, Natalie Cole, Crosby/Nash, Led Zeppelin, Yes, The Beach Boys, Earth, Wind & Fire, Mannheim Steamroller, Smokey Robinson, Sarah Brightman, Marvin Hamlisch, Rita Moreno, Linda Ronstadt, Rosemary Clooney, Yanni, John Tesh, Lyle Lovett, David Foster, Kenny Rogers, Wynton Marsalis, K.D. Lang, Jose Feliciano, Andrea Bocelli, and YoYo Ma.
What's the large dream you have yet to achieve in your musical career?
I think exploring and developing new opportunities to reach out to people with my music is a part of my large dream. I’m very thankful, and it is so gratifying and a validation of my purpose in life to know that my music brings a measure of comfort and heartfelt meaning to many listeners. I’ve been told often that my music has a cinematic or “soundtrack” quality… I’m a big fan of the movies, and how music is so vital in driving the emotional impact of the story line and the dialogue. I would love to hear my music in film, and to be able reach an extended audience with film providing a visual context to my music.
What is one piece of advice you give to budding musicians?
I would encourage them to keep at it; to explore and enjoy their art and passion, and in so doing, share it and that part of themselves – pass it on! Perhaps it is not they who chose music, but it is music that chooses them as its custodian and connection to be passed onto future generations.
Would you live your life all over again in the same when? Explain.
I believe I have been a compassionate teacher and dedicated performer for many years, and that continues to be a fulfilling journey. I am somewhat of a “late bloomer” regarding my “Quiet Beauty” album…. I frankly was unaware of the melodies locked inside of me and that I had the aptitude to compose music. In retrospect, I wish that I would have started on this path earlier. But then, who knows……perhaps the timing is…. kismet.
Share the name of a social cause or cause-based organization you support?
The Arapahoe Philharmonic – Music Education : Youth Outreach. I have had a long association with the Arapahoe Philharmonic of Denver, CO. We have a deep commitment to music education, and educating young students is an integral part of our mission statement. Budget cuts in education across the country have often resulted in music and art programs being severely limited, if not cut entirely from the primary education (grades 1 -8) curriculum.
Many times, the only way these children are exposed to and allowed to experience the magic of music; how music is made and the instruments that make the music, is through the education outreach programs sponsored by the arts organizations themselves. My orchestra is dedicated to this cause… going out to the schools and also bringing the students to the concert venue, to ensure that the tradition and culture of the arts is continued with our youth and the generations to come.
When all is said and done, how do you want to be remembered?
Albert Einstein said it very well, "Only a life lived for others is worth living.” I would like to be remembered as an individual who has shared his wisdom and passion with kindness, respect and compassion. I am so privileged to share my love for music through my teaching and performances, and also now in sharing my own “Heartsongs” with people around the globe. In my life’s work and purpose, I hope that it might be said that my music touches the human spirit - providing solace and comfort, and also celebrating life’s most joyous occasions. I hope that I have helped inspire people to know themselves better, and in some way enriched their lives.
I have known tremendous beauty in my lifetime, there is no doubt. But when you come across a moment, a talent that makes you weep with emotion because it awakens your senses and cuts to the core of you, that’s worth more than a listen. That a devoted fan ‘makes’. I owe my daughter a big “thank you” just as we all do ‘James Todd’ for sharing his gift with the world. His work is raw, real and masterfully untainted.
Many thanks to James Todd for making this interview possible