Artist Blog

Emilio Solla: Jazz Composition, a non-formal approach

When JC invited me to publish something in this blog, it took me quite a while to figure out what to write about that would be interesting for a forum visited by many colleagues who already have their own voice as composers, and decided that maybe (just maybe) the most interesting thing I could share is my own methodology and approach, being that my musical background is (for good and for bad) far from that of musicians who have studied and developed their language inside the usual jazz boundaries.

I got into music through long years of classical piano and composition as well as studies in counterpoint, orchestration, etc. When jazz harmony and piano blew my mind at around 17, I had already developed a deep interest for longer forms and the eternal problem of finding the right amount of variation of all the possible elements and enough motif development so that the piece will move forward and stay interesting, but not so much that it could end up being a collage of so many ideas that would conspire against unity and coherence. I guess that many of our first compositions suffer from that all-you-can-tell-in-5-minutes syndrome, right?

Through studying with different teachers (and most importantly with the Argentine Gabriel Senanes) I’ve developed a certain protocol that I try to use almost always, sometimes more rigorously than others, which is based on a non-formal approach to the piece, that is, you do not write in order. Again, we are not talking of a 32-bar song here (in which case you certainly might want to write bar 5 before you meet bar 6) but of more complex, ambitious forms. There is, of course the exception of you being a W.A. Mozart-type (who according to the legend could write the whole piece from beginning to end, in ink, including the orchestration). If this is your case, please go back to Netflix, you certainly will get nothing out of this article, but if you are (as yours truly) a mortal, average composer with some good ideas once in a while which need a lot of deep thought and work until they become a final piece, then you might want to read on and consider adding any of these concepts to your inventing routines.

First of all, eureka, we have an IDEA. That can be anything at all: a melody, a chord progression, just a rhythm, or even a form…anything that you use as a starting point. (You are looking at a pyramid in Egypt, and decide you will write a piece: you have no pitch, no time yet, nothing, but you have a frame: a big triangle, climax exactly at 50% of the piece…is it a palindrome? Does the peak in the middle represent pitch? Or orchestral density? Your call, it is YOUR pyramid now, nobody else’s!) Ideas tend to be short, and volatile: make a note! Any piece of paper will do, and you add one more to your archive of ideas, normally an old box or folder full of forgotten and torn pieces of paper. For mysterious reasons, some of those papers keep lingering in your mind with enough persistence so that you will grab that one from 4/11/19 and put it in the piano stand. Let’s say you have a collection of pitches (a melody germ), then you are missing all the other elements (which is the harmony? which is the rhythm? who plays it?) and, yes,…some more length (4 bars is too short even for our Instagram-can’t-focus-on-anything brains). Sing out the melody a few times, see if it reveals more clues about where she wants to go (sorry for the “she” here, melody is feminine in Spanish. And it is too important to call it “it”, you feel me?) Maybe you moved to 8 bars, maybe still only 4…no worries, you’ve just completed the first segment of the compositional trip, this one was short and easy: just “downloading” the idea from…from…wish we knew, right!? Or maybe we do not want to know, like we do not want to know how the magician produced that pigeon out of the empty hat.

A personal word about the IDEA: while some composers talk about creating a motif out of nothing, just grabbing four pitches at random for example, and while I swear I respect any approach to the creative act you might choose (like my friend Ignacio who combines his pink shoes with a yellow tie and likes it), I personally could never write any good music out of such a start, other than maybe some school exercise. Can you cook with whatever is left in the fridge? Sure thing, but I doubt you can compare that meal to the one that started with you in Ironbound, NJ, and suddenly realizing you are close to Seabras, the Portuguese supermarket, where they sell the real North Atlantic octopus with which you could…etc.) You might argue: the things you had in the fridge were also great quality ingredients, then, why the difference? Well, this is the difference: the second menu was born out of an idea that came NATURALLY to you…and who knows why those ideas’ genetic material is so much richer, personal and other good things! Let’s go for a glass of wine and dive into this, your treat!

So, what now? By now the notes have tentative durations (never final, just for now!) Time to harmonize maybe? If an initial harmony was part of the combo, I write it down on top of the melody, if not, I go for the most obvious one or one that sounds instantly good, trying not think too much, it is not yet time for corrections! We are about to embark in the second segment of our composing trip: ACCUMULATION. We do not praise, we do not judge, we do not reject, we do not choose or make any decision: we accumulate possibilities, not knowing where, when or if they will be used at all, and we simply do not care! Just write down the melody on a page with a lot of room below, and dedicate a good while to re-harmonize, using all the techniques you know (substitutions, secondary dominants, different harmonic rhythms, functional and non-functional possibilities, etc., etc.). Do not discard any approach, do not erase any simple triad for being too simple, do not decide…I can’t highlight enough the importance of this. Of course, you may find certain changes you love, that is great, make a mark because they have good chances of ending up in the piece, but this is not the time to pick any: you and the piece have just met, you hardly know “her” (again…), do not push her in any direction, let her tell you at the right time which is the proper harmony for that statement of the melody in “that” section after the trombone solo, because, remember, we are dealing with a longer form, most likely your main character will show up more than once in the movie, and you might want them to change clothes from one scene to another, right? So why do we lose so much time, and even worse, giving orders to someone we hardly know, trying to decide now a certain harmony for bar 4? It seems to make sense to lay out all the possible outfits over a couch, let them work on you, maybe “sense” that blue dress might be great for the scene we are shooting under the bridge, but at this point, we cannot even confirm there will be no scene under the bridge, fellas! So, just ACCUMULATE, let this beautiful melody walk in front of you with all those outfits, make notes but not DECISIONS. It is simple math: the more options to choose from, the richer the palette of colors, the better chance to have available that striking harmonization to be used at bar 245 which has not been heard before, as opposed to have the melody show up once and again in the same t-shirt (don’t you ever shower, my dear minor sixth jump?)

Ok, I got it, with all the silly side notes this will be a loooong article, no offense taken if you drop me at any point, will try to speed up now. Same approach should go for counterpoint, possible rhythms, melody variations, etc…Do we need a second theme? Maybe. Do we have to do the same for the second theme? Yes. Will new ideas, or side ideas pop up while I work like this? Yes, thank God: that is one of the main purposes of this approach: material comes to you as you work, as opposed to sitting there trying to understand what is happening two bars later: there is not “two bars later” because there is yet no order, only material waiting to be placed! And more great news: since your mind is focused “milking” the piece, there are great chances that these new ideas will be strongly related to the main ideas, probably without you even realizing it, because that is how the mind works. TRUST anything that comes naturally as you work, write it down, even if you do not know what it is or why it has crossed in front of you. GRAB it! Paper and pencil! Oh, yes, another side note: paper and pencil!

Music students: do not, for any reason, compose in a computer. You will see some of my “kitchen papers” along this article: there is no way you can do that on a laptop, and believe me: do not trust any food that comes out of an aseptic, hyper-clean kitchen where all aprons look stainless white and the chef uses gloves: you need to touch the ingredients with your hands, sorry, this is non-negotiable!!! PAPER AND PENCIL, please write it down a hundred times! You can of course use the computer to start throwing things in at some point and have a feel for certain sections, but you are far from that point yet (and even if you do, please remember: do not trust the computer sounds or ability to play certain things if you are writing for human beings: learn how to write idiomatically for your set of instruments and to hear the combinations in your head!). Do you need an eraser? Not really, since we are not deleting anything!

At this point you can tell one thing for sure: I like food! Back to music, when you have many score papers full of scratches, notes that only you understand, arrows, the plumber’s phone number, coffee stains and all the real life situation glorious things that happen while the “music composes herself through you” (oh, that one is for the second glass of wine, you still treating right?), then we can move to chapter three: instrumental/orchestration possibilities.

Before you make any formal decisions, spend some time writing down all your possible combinations of solos, duos, trios, etc…again, do not choose yet, just accumulate possibilities of combinations of melody, harmony and counter-lines. For example, you have a septet with four horns, piano/bass/drums. Let’s state the obvious: you do not need all seven to play all the time, do you? So, I will write down all possible solos: Tenor plays melody. Or trumpet plays melody or bari plays harmony (yes, they can!). Or bass plays counterpoint, alone! All these are solos: no one else is playing anything at that point! Duos: piano plays harmony and counterpoint, while soprano plays melody. Etc, etc. Quintets:

  1. a) – drums play rhythm, bone and tenor plays harmony, trumpet plays melody, soprano plays counterpoint. No bass or piano.
  2. j) – four horns play harmony with long notes, while drums play melody. What? Yes! Suspicious? Then you have not been down Monday nights at Smalls to hear the magnificent Ari Hoenig’s singing drumheads! I was lucky to make friends with Billy Hart many years ago and invited him for a tune in our 2010 recording with my NY quintet. Not only did I write a tune for him (“Hartbeat”) but honored him properly by giving him…the melody! He plays the last entrance of a fugato section at the coda, you do not hear the complex pitches, but the rhythm of that melody presented before by Chris Cheek’ tenor and Victor Prieto’s accordion is strong enough to understand what he is doing (check at 6:50).

What is the purpose of all this huge “loss of time”? Well, if you do not do this, even the more obvious combinations, you might be missing the opportunity of some funny, unusual variations on the texture which for sure will not be in your menu of options when you finally write the piece. You will miss contrast and, the same as with harmony, narrow down your palette of colors. Come on, with a hand on our heart: how much better and accomplished longer forms could be in our own small group writing if you would ask the drums to stop for 11 bars, suddenly, or if you’d just have only one instrument now and then, or get the bass to play the melody and the tenor to play the bass line, while the piano only plays the counterpoint two octaves higher, just the simple line, without the left hand? Why is this texture never heard in any of our albums? I am just suggesting you make a full list, even if you never use any! It might be enough if texture “H175” is used only for 4 bars at the end of the shout section in bar 316, the contrast might be huge, might be the most breathtaking moment of the piece! (Quick example: how striking is that French horn solo starting the fugue at A, 2nd mov of 2nd Brahms Symphony, after all the dense orchestration just before it!?)

Ok, thanks for reading, final moment of this possible trip: now that we have enough materials accumulated, harmonies, melodies, textures and variations of them all, we may want to start playing around with different formal possibilities. And never better said: play around. Try out things, invent forms. I never follow patterns on this, and very seldom follow my first intuition about how the piece should build. Like, do you know a lot of successful marriages that started as a high-school relation? Do not marry your first form, chances are you are repeating yourself. We tend to lack freedom when it comes to form, and do what is expected, too often. Rhythm section plays the intro, tenor plays first A, for the second A same thing and the piano suggests a counter line. B section: trumpet takes the lead, etc. (Familiar?) Of course, meanwhile drums are always playing the beat, bass plays the bass line and piano plays cool chords. Tune 2, big time: now it is the trumpet playing the A. Tune 27…yes, you guessed, either like tune 1 or tune 2…etc., etc…So, my suggestion: forget the staff paper and draw possible scores on a two-column clean paper. Left column shows the section of the music, right column lists who plays what (texture). Be adventurous, have fun. For example: start with the sax soli? Check, for example, my tune “Chacafrik” from the album Puertos. I am not saying it is a great idea, not even a good one, but, hey, it works for me in this piece! This soli material is a diminution of the B section of the main melody. Was it the first thing that got composed? Of course not, actually it was the last one! I’d have never come up with using this as the intro if I had forced myself to write the music and the form at the same time, and if I had not put some time to throw some very different forms on the paper. Form sometimes will tell you that you need to write something else you still did not have, like a modulating bridge for example. This way of working will also tell you at a glance whether your orchestration is being varied enough or not and can show you if the form is balanced in many ways, as opposed to have to write everything down in real music notation.

Of course, it is impossible to share all these techniques in one article and I didn’t even have time for one of my favorite games which is contradicting myself in plain Groucho Marx style, and show you how I do not follow my own rules. But I will be happy if this triggers in you some questions about the way in which you work, and eventually open some new doors, not so much language-wise, but in the way we can better juice the original ideas that start a piece, so as to have a good battery of side orders for the whole meal.

Some practical examples

I’ve chosen a piece from my last album, Puertos, Music from international Waters, recorded with my big band, the Tango Jazz Orchestra. You can follow score and music here:

Find below a few references relating to procedures I tried to explain in this article, and their results in the actual music, together with comments and explanations.

The piece started with a word game: Sol la, al sol. That was the IDEA. “Sol la” is my last name and the two consecutive notes in the scale, and I answer that with a “false palindrome”: “al Sol”, which means “under the sun” in Spanish. In short: myself under the sun, and a major second motif, up and down. So what do I have? The beginning of a melody, and a guy that is basking in the sun, which informs me of the spirit of the piece. Also, my motif is funny: its retrogression and inversion are the same. I sang it out, and the first 4 bars of the melody presented themselves naturally, a simple C major melody. already the subconscious is making sense with the idea. THE MUSIC WILL ALWAYS TELL YOU THE DIRECTION IF YOU LET HER DO IT. But If you think you know better than herself who she is and how she should unfold…well, good luck: then the piece will be about YOU, a simple mortal individual with hair and glands and a 75-year duration, and not about HER, a magical being impossible to grasp or understand…which of the two will be more interesting to listen to? Yes, we agree, thanks.

If you have the time and interest, I suggest you try to make some sense out of the files “Sol la, al sol, kitchen page 1 and page 2” added below (there were many more): many of the things that ended up in the piece are already there, as suggestions, as variations derived from the original cell. For example, I had great problems to understand if the music was in 5, in 6 or in 7. It ended up dancing nicely in 6 (written here as 3/2) but you see in the score, those 5/4 moments in the beginning and the 7/4 for the second theme at letter D are derived from these original uncertainties. Another one: the counterpoint at bar 9 (the motif inverted and displaced) is also part of the kitchen work. And so is the “outside” harmony when bones present the theme again at letter B.



I know, I hear your complaints about those files looking like encrypted, right? Fast writing, untidy, even page 1 used in both directions, upside down! WTF? Well, my friends, that is what I’m talking about: people do not have to see that, they only have to try your excellent dish, get your hands in the food! As far as you yourself can make sense out of your own draft papers, that is all that matters.

Try to follow the infamous major 2nd all the way through the arrangement, once again, many of those variations were sketched out during the accumulation process, not knowing if they would be used, or when, or who would play them:

  • the harmony at 84, Tenor solo: that is a harmonization of the melody, that never appeared as such, but only shows up as a harmony for the solo because the exposition of the tune did not have harmony!
  • The counterpoint in the saxophones at letter C, made up of a lot of intervals of a second used as a diminution of the original motif (in 8th notes). This device also appears extensively in all the development section leading to the shout section (letters H and I) in a bunch of different rhythmic ways.

Ok, over and out. Would love to hear your feedback and ready for heated arguments about this, soccer or anything else, just remember who is paying for the Malbec. Happy cooking, and hope to meet you all down the road.

About the Author:

With a career that spans 38 years now, 2020 Latin Grammy Winner and multi-Grammy nominated, Argentina born and New York based pianist and composer Emilio Solla got his degree in Classical Piano at the National Conservatory of Music in Buenos Aires and his MA in Jazz Composition at Queens College in New York.

Solla has released eleven albums as composer and bandleader and more than fifty as pianist/producer/arranger and is recognized by peers and press as one of the most outstanding and personal creators worldwide in the Tango-Jazz genre, a blend of Argentine tango and other Latin American rhythms with the freedom and improvisation of jazz music. He has performed all around Europe, Japan, the US and Latin America to outstanding reviews in many of the most important jazz houses and Festivals.

He has composed for and recorded/toured with Paquito D’Rivera, Arturo O’Farrill, Edmar Castañeda, Cristina Pato and many other jazz and classical greats.

His album Second Half  was nominated for a 2015 Grammy Award as Best Latin Jazz Album. In 2019,  his eleventh and most ambitious album to date, Puertos: Music from International Waters with his big band, the Tango Jazz Orchestra went on to receive the Latin Grammy Award 2020 for Best Latin Jazz Album, while one of the compositions from that album was also nominated for a Grammy in 2019 as Best Instrumental Arrangement.

He continues to tour with his many projects, from solo piano concerts to guesting with symphony orchestras, and is an active freelance educator, arranger and composer in the demanding NY jazz music scene.

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