Jason Palmer: Getting a Foot in the Door of the House of Composition

Thank you to the ISJAC for inviting me to contribute to the blog.  I didn’t know about this resource before the invitation, and I’ve learned a ton since diving into the archives.  I’d like to offer up a commentary on my journey through the world of composing creative music in a small group setting with the hope of inspiring those who are wanting to jump into the process but may not know a path to take.

I’ve been afforded the opportunity to present clinics on improvisation, composition, and everything in between over the past 20 years in places near and far.  One of the proverbial questions that always arises is, “So how did you approach composing original music?” So here are a few ideas that I have been relaying to musicians getting their pens/keyboards wet in the composition game:

Composition as Improvisational Language

When I arrived in Boston in 1997 to attend my undergrad, I met Darren Barrett, the great trumpeter/composer who was just finishing his studies at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz at the New England Conservatory of Music.  I asked him about the idea of composing and how he approached it.  He told me, “You know, when you’re composing, you’re documenting what springs from your improvising mind.  It’s all improvisational language.”  This idea initially sent me for a loop, but eventually made sense and settled in nicely.  Darren later relayed a relating idea of writing out solos to tunes that you’ve been working on just to have something in front of you that you can play variations on.  I started to really work on this and that’s when the idea of composing for small groups (what I was into at the time, and still am) started to take shape.

Contrafacts are our Friends

I took the idea “composing in real time” and locked myself in a practice room with a tape recorder, a pair of headphones, and my CD Discman.  I brought recordings of songs that I really dug at the time on cd with me, put on headphones and started playing along with them (in many ways, that’s a lot hipper than playing with an Aebersold or iRealPro), while at the same time recording myself practicing in those sessions.  I then listened back to the practice sessions and transcribed anything from my playing that I thought could become a composition.  What I later realized was that by doing this, I was able to “creep” into the habit of writing out melodies that were already attached to a particular chord progression.  Below are a few examples of contrafacts that I’ve recorded:

Found It (an original based on Myron Walden’s Like a Flower Seeking the Sun)

3rd Shift (an original based on Wayne Shorter’s Night Dreamer)

Learning Songs to Write Songs

As I began to write contrafacts, I did my best to become more mindful of making a stronger effort to learn about the art of composing interesting harmonic progressions for improvisers.  At the time, I didn’t know many songs but I was attending a weekly jam session at Wally’s Jazz Café in Boston, where tunes that I didn’t know were being called left and right.  I made it a point to go to the local record stores (there were about 5 really good ones in Boston/Cambridge at the time) and spend all of my work study money on records that had the quintessential versions of the songs that I had to learn on them.  I then transcribed the song(s) on the record along with all of the other songs on the record, which built my repertoire immensely.  It was there that I was able to gain a deeper understanding of the foundations of consonant/dissonant harmonic functions in this music.  This gave me the ability to compose without relying on chord changes from other tunes and only returning to that idea when I feel the itch!  I always tell my students that you don’t have to give up the idea of learning more standards if you want to start to compose original material and vice versa.

Have a Band/Gig?  Write Flexibly for It!

I was lucky to have a steady gig on the weekends leading my own band for over 15 years in Boston at Wally’s Jazz Café.  It was really an incubator for compositional experimentation for me.  It was unique to me because I was able to test out new material constantly (with no artistic constraints whatsoever) for an audience that didn’t necessarily come to hear us play.  While I found that to be a welcomed challenge, I also faced the challenge of writing music for great musical bandmates that juggled busy life/school schedules, therefore limiting available time to rehearse.  There was also the aspect of hiring subs, which always altered the repertoire for any given night.  I started to compose and organize older compositions of mine into 3 graded categories that I found to be useful.  Examples are at the below the description:

Grade 1:  Songs that are easily sight-readable by any competent musician, needing no rehearsal.  Fun songs to improvise on (“blowing tunes”) that make the band sound like “a rehearsed band”.

Grade 2:  Songs that would need to be looked at ahead of time for most competent musicians, but don’t necessarily need to be rehearsed beforehand.  These songs strengthened the idea of what a “band” sounds like to novice listeners.  These songs have unconventional song forms, challenging harmonic progressions, and melodies that need shedding before hitting the stage.

Grade 3:  Songs that need a thorough rehearsing with the band.  These songs are written to push and advance my technique and challenge my bandmates as well as the audience.

After you’ve composed pieces and considered what level of musicianship is required to have the songs come to life in a way that you’ve hoped for, considering organizing them into separate books that can be easily pulled out to match the appropriate personnel in your band for any given gig.

It’s my sincere hope that at least one person finds something helpful from post.  I invite everyone reading this to take any or all of the information and run with it!

Sent with LOVE,

Jason Palmer


About the Author:

Jason Palmer was recently named to the inaugural class of the Boston Artist in Residence Fellowship for Music Composition.  He also received a Chamber Music America New Jazz Works for 2019.  In 2011 and 2017, he was named a Fellow in Music Composition by the Massachusetts Cultural Council. In 2014, Jason was honored as a recipient of the French American Cultural Exchange Jazz Fellowship where he collaborated with French pianist Cedric Hanriot, collaboration on an album and touring the United States and Europe. Jason won 1st Place in the 2009 Carmine Caruso International Jazz Trumpet Solo Competition and was cited in the June 2007 issue of Downbeat Magazine as one of the "Top 25 trumpeters of the Future".   

In addition to performing on over forty albums as a sideman, Jason has recorded thirteen albums under his own name on labels Ayva, Steeplechase, Whirlwind, Newvelle, and most recently with Giant Step Arts. Four of his recordings were reviewed by Downbeat Magazine, all receiving 4 stars or better. Jason has toured in over 30 countries with saxophonists Mark Turner, Greg Osby, Grace Kelly, and Matana Roberts, and has been a featured guest artist on multiple projects in Portugal, Mexico, Canada and Russia. 

In addition to a heavy performing schedule, Jason Palmer offers his passion for improvised music as an Assistant Professor of Ensembles and Brass at Berklee College of Music. Jason has also served as an Assistant Professor at Harvard University and at New England Conservatory. He has also served on the faculty at the New School of Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York City.