Chuck Owen: The problem with approaching composition from an improvisational perspective

When I first started composing & arranging seriously for jazz ensembles as an undergrad at the Univ. of North Texas (then NTSU), my interest was focused primarily on exploring the rich harmonic world jazz embraces – studying and experimenting with voicings and orchestration to create colorful and evocative settings.  Odd meters and complex, disjunct (particularly funk) rhythmic figures?  Loved them too!!  But as to melody??  Well, I largely viewed that as something that I could extract quickly, simply, and intuitively from the harmonic structure.  I mean, that’s what we do as improvisers, right?    And, form?   Frankly, there just didn’t appear to be much to wrestle with; as the strophic use of song form was (and is) ingrained throughout the jazz tradition.  So, most formal considerations seemed pretty codified; with variations limited largely to whether to employ an intro or coda and when/where to use background figures or a sax soli.

As you might expect, my vision of what jazz composition is  . . or can be . . . .has changed a bit since that time . . . . as has my compositional approach.  For the last 25 years, at least; my energy, focus, and struggles (and I have a LOT of these!), seem to have coalesced precisely around those 2 areas - melody and form – that I tended to toss off early on.  Oh, don’t get me wrong, I still love orchestrating and creating evocative voicings as I believe anyone who listens to my work will readily recognize; but I see these now existing in service to advancing the melodic and formal development of the composition. 

Why the change? 

I use analogies to the other arts a great deal in my teaching – particularly literature, film, and architecture.   While comparing a melodic idea to that of a character in a book/movie is certainly not a novel concept, it is an apt one.  If the reader or movie-goer isn’t able to develop a relationship with the main character. . . .and the more personal, the better . . . . they’re typically not invested in the story.  There simply HAS to be at least one character (if not more) that is unique, relatable, intriguing, and evolving.  Stop for a minute - read that list again!!  Unique . . . relatable . . . . intriguing. .  . . . and evolving!  Wow – what a challenge to create a melody in that vein!! 

Likewise, form can be seen as essentially the plot or narrative structure.  If it’s too predictable (or too convoluted for all that matters) we tune out!  I’m guessing we’ve all read books or watched movies in which every scene seems telegraphed from the outset (often just a rehash of another plot) and no matter how many buildings/cars/politicians are blown up, or how stunning the cinematography or prose is, we leave with little we (want to) remember.  It’s not much of a stretch to imagine our listeners would be most intrigued by a formal structure that involved both a logical progression/evolution of ideas as well as a few unexpected twists or turns along the way.

While many of the students I work with seem to greatly admire composers/works which I feel embrace the values just set forth; I’ve often been struck by their resistance to really wanting to spend time (or possess the patience) to fashion the strongest possible melody or work on formal and melodic development beyond largely formulaic practices.  While it’s all too easy to dismiss this as mere laziness on their parts (and sometimes it is!); for the most part, I think that assumption misses the mark.

Actually, I think it’s our background as jazz musicians/performers that often leads us astray!

Oh, that will probably raise some eyebrows . . . and, admittedly, I’m being somewhat purposefully provocative.  However, while I don’t necessarily disagree with the oft-heard adage “improvisation is spontaneous composition”, I’d like to clearly and unequivocally state that “jazz composition is not and should not be confused with improvisation”.   

Composers are endowed with two things the improviser (by definition) does not possess – time and reflection!  Our ability to improvise can (and should!) prove extremely advantageous in coming up with melodic ideas; but the jazz composer must resist the desire to accept the very first phrase that comes to her/him as if its manna from heaven.  Challenge it!  Seek competing ideas.   Evaluate its characteristics, strengths, and weaknesses.  Is it open to being transformed over time and, if so, how?  Tweak it, live with it . . . how does it sit two days later??  These are all luxuries the composer has that the improviser does not.  Take advantage of them!! 

It’s equally important for the composer to recognize that many of the formal structures and devices used to this day on the bandstand are historical constructs of convenience and necessity – devised explicitly to facilitate gigs, impromptu performances, and improvisational settings where musicians are not only working without any notated music, they may never have even met each other before.  Here, there is a clear and compelling NEED to rely on conventional structures . . . to simply call the tune, count it off, and play!  There’s not enough time before each tune to discuss how an expansion of the form during the second solo might build intensity better or how a 13-bar restatement of the 2nd half of the bridge might be the perfect, elegant intro needed.  Strophic repetition of the song form for solos is not only tradition, it’s an absolute necessity . . . . . as are stock intros and codas.

The composer, however, is not constrained by such pragmatism.  We get to dream bigger!  In dealing with form (ultimately, a much, much longer conversation!), recognize how it can be used, effectively, to help the listener understand the context of the musical ideas.  Repetition, in and of itself, is not problematic.  It can be highly effective in giving the listener a sense of grounding and in reinforcing important ideas.  But it should not be employed simply for the lack of anything better to do  . . . .or because of convention.  Even more critically, it is through careful and imaginative use of form that the composer has the opportunity to profoundly influence the flow, contour, and proportions of the piece – creating an actual story rather than merely staging an event.  (I’ll briefly draw your attention to the use of the word “influence” rather than “control”.  While an appropriate subject for another blog, I believe strongly that good jazz composition embraces an improvisational sensibility and seeks to provide those performing the music with creative input and opportunities even in the most highly scored works.) 

So, having read to this point, you might be surprised to learn that I continue to use song form as the basis for almost all of my composition.  It’s the jazz tradition I grew up with – and a jumping off point I still find very fertile compositionally.  If viewed not as a rigid pre-fab structure but as a foundation that can support an infinite variety of expandable/collapsible walls, windows, doors, and a few cozy nooks – you’ll understand my comfort level with it. 

I’m attaching a formal outline to “Warped Cowboy” from my last CD “Whispers on the Wind”.  You’ll note both its expansiveness (the piece is over 14:00 long and is comprised of two major themes – each of which employs song form) and, hopefully, its economy.  The solo sections’ chord progressions are based on the prior song forms (primarily the “Cowboy” theme) but have been altered to create not only a better solo environment but to allow for the story to breathe and evolve in a manner that is both logical and continually fresh.  You’ll also notice they differ not only from their original iteration - but from each other as well.  As Stephan King likes to say, “The world moves on.”   You’ll also note the absence of any section marked “Transition”.  In my mind, every moment is a transition of some sort.  By understanding where we are headed we can fashion these moments so that the final arrival or climax feels inevitable, even if not completely expected.   

If you’re interested in delving a bit deeper, study scores for “Warped Cowboy” as well as a number of my other recorded works with the Jazz Surge are available on my website store:  www.chuckowen.com along with the CDs and full charts. 

Listen to Warped Cowboy:

Click here to download the Formal Analysis for "Warped Cowboy"
Click here to download the Motive Sheet for "Warped Cowboy"


About the Author:

Chuck Owen is Distinguished University Professor of Jazz Studies at the University of South Florida.  A nationally respected educator, having established USF’s acclaimed jazz program, he is recognized equally for his unique compositional voice; one steeped thoroughly in the jazz tradition but drawing on a diverse array of additional influences from contemporary classical and American folk/roots music to Latin styles, funk, hip-hop, . . . even country!  The result is an evocative, thoughtful, and frequently quite playful/joyous body of work.

The recipient of a 2009 Guggenheim Fellowship and five GRAMMY nominations, Owen has written for or had his compositions performed by the: Netherlands’ Metropole Orch., Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orch., Tonight Show Orchestra, Brussels Jazz Orch., Aarhus Jazz Orch. (Denmark), Scottish National Jazz Orch., Cincinnati Symphony, US Army Jazz Ambassadors and numerous others. 

Owen’s primary creative outlet, however, is his own 20-piece Jazz Surge.  Founding the ensemble in 1995, Owen serves as conductor, primary composer/arranger, and producer of its six highly-feted CDs, including:  River Runs (2013), a stunning 5 movement genre-bending work Rufus Reid described as, “.  .   . . .a tour de force of contemporary orchestral composition” and the Huffington Post called, “a masterpiece of aural sounds”, and  The Comet’s Tail (2009), critically acclaimed as “riotous and joyous” (JazzTimes), “muscular” (Downbeat), and “deserving of universal attention” (All Music Guide).  Both recordings garnered Grammy nominations with Chuck individually honored in 2014 with Grammy nominations for both Best Instrumental Composition & Best Instrumental Arrangement.

The Jazz Surge’s most recent project, Whispers On the Wind, expands on the American folk and roots leanings of River Runs enlisting the evocative violin of Sara Caswell, the luminescent harmonica of Gregoire Maret, and an array of acoustic guitars deftly played by Corey Christiansen.  In it, Owen has created a sound that is drenched in atmosphere – at times buoyant, playful, and triumphant . . . .  at others, melancholy, mysterious, and intimate – but always coming straight out of the American heartland.  Feted with four 2018 GRAMMY nominations (for Best Large Jazz Ensemble recording, Best Instrumental Composition, Best Instrumental Arrangement, and Best Jazz Solo – Sara Caswell) the reviews have been similarly glowing: 
“creative, poetic . . . . wildly personal” – Jeff Simon, Buffalo News
“ an impressive melding of Montana and 52
nd St.” – George Harris, Jazz Weekly
“ episodic, dramatic, and picturesque.” – Scott Yanow, NY City Jazz Record
“. . . an impossibly winsome combination of slow burn with spontaneous combustion. 
                    Reality on a sizzling hot silver platter.” – Carol Bank Weber, Medium.com

Owen presently serves as the founding President of ISJAC (International Society of Jazz Arrangers & Composers).  Previously he has served as President of the International Association for Jazz Education, as a “governor” for the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, and as a panelist (Chair) for the Pulitzer Prize in Music, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Grammy Awards, and numerous regional arts associations.  The Director of the USF Jazz Ensemble for 30 years, he has led the group in performances at international jazz festivals as well as with renowned guest artists. He is the recipient of the USF President’s Award for Faculty Excellence as well as both the Outstanding Undergraduate Teaching Award and Outstanding Research Award.

Chuck’s most recent compositions for jazz ensemble are available on his website:  www.chuckowen.com   Other publications are available through UNC Jazz Press as well as EJazzLines.